An ombudsman program for children’s human rights in Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture, marked its 15th anniversary this year as Japan’s first independent public organ to address problems involving children.

To date, some 8,800 requests for advice have been placed with the city’s Ombudspersons for Children’s Human Rights, while more than 20 local governments have established similar bodies modeled on Kawanishi’s.

The Kawanishi Municipal Government started the program in April 1999 after Japan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It addresses problems children face on a daily basis, including bullying, punishment and family problems.

The organ consists of three people appointed by the mayor and four staff members who carry out the day-to-day work. To ensure its independence, the organ is not under the municipal board of education but reports directly to the mayor.

The program’s genesis can be traced back to one teacher’s experience 30 years ago.

Shozo Yoshinaga, 62, was the student guidance counselor at a junior high school in the city. A few days before the third-year students’ graduation, Yoshinaga was called into an empty classroom and attacked by a troubled student he had supervised.

“Satisfied? You can now graduate with a smile, can’t you?” Yoshinaga recalled telling the student. The student then burst into tears and began talking about the problems in his life, including the complicated relationship with his family, which he said had no place for him.

The student wasn’t properly dressed and had been rebellious throughout his school days. But he attended graduation in a neat school uniform and smiled at Yoshinaga.

Yoshinaga was impressed by the student’s change and concluded after that while teachers should be tough with students who don’t follow the rules, they also need to speak with them “on an equal footing.”

In 1995, the municipal board of education set up a panel to study children’s issues, which eventually led to the drafting of the Kawanishi City Child Rights Ombudsperson Ordinance.

Yoshinaga was then transferred to the panel.

“Teachers were expected to deal with so many issues,” Yoshinaga said. “There had to be something that could ease the pressure on children and teachers.”

The ombudman program occasionally dispatches one or more staff members to a school for an extended period.

Responding, for example, to a complaint filed in summer 2001 by parents of a fourth-grade pupil at an elementary school who said the child’s class was totally disorderly, Noriko Morisawa, 41, and Makoto Yokoi, 43, stayed in the class not as teachers but as “classmates,” who studied and played with the students for about two months.

One day, a sad-looking girl held Morisawa’s hand.

“Is anything wrong?” Morisawa asked. The girl then confessed that she was being bullied in class.

Morisawa and Yokoi, who had meanwhile gotten close to male students, found that bullying was part of the problem. Bullying slowly subsided as the girl continued to talk to Morisawa while the boys spoke more closely with Yokoi. Order was gradually restored.

Morisawa and Yokoi were able to get close to the students because they weren’t teachers, the girl, now a adult, recalls. “I felt greatly relieved because (Morisawa) listened to me thoroughly.”

A recent survey found that some 70 percent of all elementary and junior high schools in Kawanishi know about ombudspersons for children’s human rights.

The office accepts requests for advice about children who live, study or work in the city. Children and parents account for some 40 percent of the requests, while the remainder come from teachers.

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