National

Bad news for students: Completed homework assignments are no longer for sale

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

It’s the last week of August, when children who have spent their entire summer vacation slacking off suddenly realize with daunting dismay that they have piles of book reports and diaries left untouched, not to mention an art project they were supposed to start weeks ago.

Bad news for them and their parents trying to help them out: Their last-minute “trump card” to get all the homework done is no longer available.

Operators of major online shopping websites — Mercari, Rakuten and Yahoo Japan — each released a joint statement together with the education ministry on Wednesday announcing they will ban the sales of what appear to be the works of a niche, if increasingly rampant, business: homework-by-proxy.

The three firms said they will “remove immediately” from their websites items that appear to be catering to children desperate to conjure up essays or art projects that they have neglected to work on all summer long.

The education ministry has fretted over the rise of what is widely dubbed the “surrogate homework business,” which official Yuki Ishida said has become an “annual” phenomenon over the past couple of years.

“Needless to say, it is our position that homework should be done by children themselves,” Ishida said.

The ministry began negotiating with the three firms earlier this month, urging them to take countermeasures, Ishida said.

“Although we have long regarded homework-by-proxy as undesirable, we at the same time have no legal authority to crack down on it,” the official said. “So the fact we and the private firms were able to send a joint message against a practice that we otherwise couldn’t have controlled is very meaningful, I think,” Ishida said.

Those behind the niche businesses go to great lengths to perfect the authenticity of their fake assignments.

Some deliberately keep their prose childish to make their book reports — a popular assignment in Japan — look as if they had been written by 10-year-olds, while others dig up old artworks made by their own children in the past and seek to profit off them, the official said.

Rakuten, which runs flea market app Rakuma, has maintained a policy against homework-by-proxy since its inception, spokesman Motoki Nagasato said.

Still, Nagasato said, the firm has witnessed the sales of some items ostensibly touted as “samples” for children to base their own work on — although it’s rather clear that these items are meant to be stand-in projects children can submit to school as their own. Going forward, Rakuma will remove these dubious items, too, he said.

But the education ministry says lazy children and those tapping into their desperation aren’t the only guilty parties here. It expressed hope Wednesday’s move will serve as a wake-up call for school teachers, who Ishida said should think about why some children feel compelled to resort to such a last-minute measure in the first place.

“We believe it’s possible one of the reasons children seek help from this kind of business is because their homework is not necessarily appropriate, both in terms of quality and quantity,” Ishida said, citing unproductive kanji drills that force them to practice the most rudimentary kanji characters over and over again.

“So instead of dismissing any rethink of their homework tradition under the logic ‘this is what we have been doing all these years,’ we want schools to take this opportunity to reassess whether the homework they’re imposing on their pupils is really appropriate.”