In early September, the education ministry issued a notice to boards of education nationwide asking schools to let students leave their textbooks and other study materials at school — the practice known as okiben in Japanese — to reduce the weight of their school bags.
While some students and parents welcome the move, others worry that it could lead to problems such as students studying less at home or their belongings getting lost or damaged.
“I used to always feel tired because (my backpack) was really heavy,” said Fuku Kutsuwa, 9, a fourth grader at Gifu Elementary School in the city of Gifu. “Now it’s light, so I don’t get exhausted even if I run.” Her backpack only contains five or six textbooks.
She said she started to think her backpack was heavy around the time she became a third grader, because she had to carry more textbooks as the number of subjects increased.
In May, her father, Masashi, 50, weighed her backpack after hearing from her that she was having a hard time carrying it. The backpack weighed 6 kilograms, he said.
“My daughter’s weight is 24 kg. I was surprised that the backpack weighed as much as a quarter of her weight,” he said.
There was no rule at the school banning okiben, but nobody had been doing it.
The parents’ association, including Fuku’s father, started discussing the issue with the school principal in late May, and in mid-June, the principal told all the students that they could leave their textbooks and other belongings at school.
“I’m glad that children can now go to school with light backpacks,” Masashi said.
Students’ school bags have become much heavier in recent years as the textbooks they use are thicker and there is a greater variety of supplementary materials, reflecting the government’s policy shift away from the so-called yutori cram-free education.
According to the Textbook Publishers Association of Japan, the number of pages in elementary and junior high school textbooks for fiscal 2015 increased 30 percent compared with those for fiscal 2005.
In Nagoya, most schools tell students to take all their study materials home. But following the education ministry’s release of the notice, the city’s education board plans to come up with a policy, before the end of the school year in March at the latest.
A 42-year-old mother of a 13-year-old girl in Nishi Ward, Nagoya, said her daughter’s junior high school does not allow okiben. “I feel sorry for my daughter going to school every day half crying, saying her shoulders and back hurt,” the mother said, adding that her school rucksack is almost bursting open because of the amount of textbooks and study materials in it. It often weighs more than 10 kg.
The girl must walk more than 20 minutes to school with the heavy rucksack, and sometimes also with her box lunch, bottle of drink and gym clothes.
“I don’t know why they have to bring back home all the study materials every day, even the ones they don’t need for their homework,” the mother said. “I hope the school will soon allow okiben, because I’m worried that their bones might get crooked or they could collapse on hot days.”
Katsumasa Sugimoto, 61, who is head of Nagoya Sports Clinic and knows about children’s physical development, said that “children lack muscular strength, and their shoulders and backs can easily be damaged when they lift up heavy backpacks. They should avoid putting excessive burdens on themselves.”
Meanwhile, some teachers and parents are concerned that encouraging students to leave study materials at school could make them care less about textbooks.
“(If students leave their textbooks at school) they might not get a chance to make it a habit to use textbooks when they study at home,” said a teacher in charge of third graders at an elementary school in Kaizu, Gifu Prefecture.
Another teacher in charge of second graders at an elementary school in Kani, also in Gifu, said, “If study materials are left at school, they might get lost or be deliberately damaged.”
A woman from Higashi Ward in Nagoya, although worried about the burden of a heavy backpack on her daughter who is a second grader in elementary school, said, “I still want her to bring them back home at least while she is in elementary school, so that she learns how to take good care of her textbooks.”
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Sept. 24.