National / Crime & Legal

Juvenile center helps foreign youths in Japan rejoin society

Yokosuka facility gives juvenile offenders way to overcome language, other cultural barriers

by Takaki Tominaga

Kyodo

A juvenile correction facility near Yokohama has been helping offenders of foreign descent turn their lives around for the past three decades.

In a country where language and cultural barriers are often the root cause of delinquency, the Kurihama Juvenile Training School plays a big role in helping young boys rejoin and participate in Japanese society.

As of December, around 10 out of the some 60 youths at the facility in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, were enrolled in a program designed to improve their Japanese skills and learn more about Japan’s culture to help them succeed on the outside.

Kurihama Juvenile is the biggest program of its kind in Japan, and even accepts offenders from outside the region. In all, several hundred youngsters of foreign descent have gone through the program since it began in 1993. The school was established in 1953.

Kurihama Juvenile Training School plays a big role in helping young offenders with foreign roots rejoin and become active members of Japanese society. | COURTESY OF KURIHAMA JUVENILE TRAINING SCHOOL / VIA KYODO
Kurihama Juvenile Training School plays a big role in helping young offenders with foreign roots rejoin and become active members of Japanese society. | COURTESY OF KURIHAMA JUVENILE TRAINING SCHOOL / VIA KYODO

Three of the current group, whose identities have been withheld to protect their privacy, said that they want to enroll in fashion and design schools here once they leave Kurihama Juvenile, according to officials at the school. One also hopes to attend university.

“Many juveniles usually engage in physical labor, such as factory jobs and working at construction sites, after they are released from our juvenile training school,” one official from the facility said.

“In very rare cases, they can advance to schools to acquire higher education if their families are wealthy enough to afford it,” he said, suggesting former offenders have a hard time improving their social standing.

Most of the 10 are originally from East Asia, South Asia and South America, but some also have Japanese nationality, according to the school. They are all 17 to 20 years old.

“They are the kind of youngsters who cannot find their niche and sense of belonging in ordinary communities and get drawn into delinquent or criminal groups,” said Shingo Aoki, a senior official in charge of research and development for the program.

Another official said that none of the 10 was able to settle down well in the normal school system. Some of them were bullied, some were involved in school violence and some frequently skipped class.

The youths, whose offenses range from theft and assault to fraud and drug violations, are housed in individual rooms in a separate living area and are kept apart from nonparticipants, a school official said.

The institution’s 11-month treatment program is broadly divided into five categories — academic subjects (including Japanese), vocational training, fundamental lifestyle guidance, special activities to nurture independence and cooperativeness, and physical education.

Their Japanese level varies. Some can barely understand daily conversation when they enter the institution. But most become proficient by the time they leave, according to the school.

“Knowledge of and skills in the Japanese language are the fundamental key for (these young adults) to adjust to and succeed in Japan,” said Tadashi Moriyama, a professor of criminology at Takushoku University, who cites the education program in his studies.

This textbook is used to teach Japanese to young criminal offenders of foreign descent at the Kurihama Juvenile Training School in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. | KYODO
This textbook is used to teach Japanese to young criminal offenders of foreign descent at the Kurihama Juvenile Training School in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. | KYODO

During a recent Japanese class taught by an outside teacher every two weeks, they were taught idiomatic phrases, such as “What goes around comes around” and “Enduring unbearable hardships for the sake of attaining one’s objective.”

Participants make speeches in Japanese and discuss topical events. Their peers give them feedback and thoughts on their presentations.

Recently, some made speeches about efforts to rebuild Okinawa Prefecture’s Shuri Castle after the fire in October and Pope Francis’ speech in Japan in November, in which the pontiff called the use of atomic energy for war a “crime.”

The main focus of the speech class is to train participants to logically express their opinions in Japanese rather than make value judgments on what can be polarizing issues, according to Tsugu Sugimura, deputy manager of the school.

After a presentation about the pope’s speech, one student said: “I would like to create peace instead of committing crimes.”

By completing various chores and other training programs, such as a woodcraft class, the students are taught work ethics, good manners and Japanese customs that will prepare them for real world experiences, Aoki said.

Tadashi Moriyama | KYODO
Tadashi Moriyama | KYODO

Moriyama said that when foreign residents get involved in delinquency and crimes, it suggests they’re having serious problems adjusting to society.

Enrollment at juvenile training schools in Japan stood at 65 in 2018 after peaking at 153 in 2002, according to a 2019 white paper on crime. This decline, however, appears to go against the recent growth in Japan’s foreign population.

The fall might be attributed to the development of support networks for foreign residents and immigrants in recent years, Sugimura and Aoki say.

But foreign residents and immigrants are often viewed as a source of crime or subversion, and xenophobia can be especially pronounced in a relatively homogeneous society like Japan’s, Moriyama warned.

“If we can remove the fear (by getting to know each other), people will understand we are all the same human beings,” Moriyama said. “We should make efforts to prevent maladaptation to society and support their reintegration, rather than discriminating and excluding foreigners in an era of globalization.”

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