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The rigidity of Japanese schools is suffocating children and is one of the causes behind the recent rise in youth crime, according to education experts.

Naoki Ogi, an education critic who taught for 22 years until 1993 in junior high and high schools, believes teachers need to open up their minds and listen to children before trying to control them, otherwise bullying, truancy and other problems will never see a decline.

“If teachers took the bullying seriously, the boy who hijacked the bus might have led a happier life,” Ogi said, referring to a 17-year-old boy from Saga Prefecture who hijacked a bus earlier this month, killing one passenger and injuring two others.

The boy was reportedly bullied when he was in junior high school. According to one extreme account, he was forced by his peers to jump from the top of a flight of stairs at school, resulting in a serious back injury.

Teachers at his school “did nothing” to stop the bullying, the boy reportedly told police after he was arrested.

“Teachers basically like kids,” Ogi said. “But the educational system, which requires teachers to evaluate students’ personalities, is distorting teachers’ perceptions of the real feelings of children.”

In 1993, the Education Ministry introduced an evaluation system at junior high schools that factors in not only academic performance, but also students’ attitudes in class.

The evaluation, which is often criticized for reflecting teachers’ subjective preferences, is looked at along with entrance exam results in reviews of high school admissions applications.

Ogi said children are compelled to act out “good kid” roles at school for fear of losing points in their evaluations. “Therefore, more and more bullying is taking place behind teachers’ backs,” he said.

To give one example of closer communication between teachers and students, Ogi referred to one of his own teaching experiences. He gave a “communication notebook” to each of his students in which they could write to him anything they want, and he promised to keep it secret.

“Of course, not everyone wrote to me. But one girl, who was seen as a rough student, wrote 14 pages one day, and I wrote 14 pages back,” Ogi said. “She said she was surprised that I actually took her seriously.”

But a 26-year-old high school teacher, who has been teaching for five years, said her workload makes it difficult to have such close relationships.

“There is so much work to do besides teaching classes,” she said, referring to such things as organizing school trips, taking care of club activities and participating in various teaching seminars.

“We simply don’t have enough time even if we wanted to talk with each student,” she said, “and it makes it more difficult when we have over 40 students in a class.”

Ogi said the present-day school system, which was established more than 50 years ago, no longer meets the needs of today’s information society.

“What children learned at school used to be the most up-to-date information available, but now they can get more recent information outside of schools,” he said.

The rigid educational system, typified by strict rules and uniform curricula, is making schools unattractive.

“The classroom model of a teacher facing the blackboard with children taking notes and not being encouraged to speak has not changed at all,” Ogi said, adding that the sharp rise in cases of bullying and truancy in recent years reflects children’s feelings of oppression.

A more fundamental problem with Japan’s compulsory educational system is that it offers no alternatives to school-based education, according to Kyoko Aizawa, head of Otherwise Japan, a home-education support organization.

“Children do not have the right to opt out of school,” said Aizawa, who advocates allowing parents to educate their children at home.

“Even if they suffer from serious bullying at school, they have nowhere else to go,” she said.

Although an increasing number of children are attending “free schools,” alternative schools that are not legally recognized by the state, Aizawa said these children, as well as home-educated children, are denied access to higher education in Japan.

“We’re not against education in schools,” Aizawa said. “But home-based education should be treated as one option, and there should be many options.”

Today’s youth spent their teens in the 1990s — the decade of Japan’s economic slump and a time, some feel, when the nation suffered a moral breakdown, which was illustrated by a series of corporate failures, nuclear accidents caused by corrupt work ethics, nerve gas attacks, and scandals involving bureaucrats and police officers.

Ogi says this social backdrop, as well as the rigidity in schools, is making the lives of adolescents difficult.

“Young people have no role models to look up to,” he said. “Schools are not comfortable to be in and adults are not trustworthy, so how can they go through such a difficult period in their lives in a positive manner?”