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Media reports of the increasing number of violent incidents in the nation’s public elementary and junior and senior high schools have made “classroom collapse” part of the everyday language. The reports nearly always refer to these incidents as examples of a breakdown in school discipline, but “discipline” is a word that has many applications. The inability and apparent absence of any desire to control their emotional outbursts by more and more Japanese youngsters does indeed reflect a lack of self-discipline. So, however, does the fact revealed by the Education Ministry late last year that a record 76 schoolteachers were reprimanded for acts of sexual indecency with minors during the 1998 school year.

Reports of the ministry’s latest annual survey of public schools on the issue of disciplinary action against teachers offered no details on the sex of the educators involved in the assaults. However, men still greatly outnumber women in the Japanese education profession and it appears that only men had to be so chastised. At a time when the resignation of Mr. “Knock” Yokoyama as governor of Osaka following sexual harassment charges put the issue at the forefront of public consciousness, it is doubly disturbing to learn of the increase in this egregious abuse of authority by people responsible for the guidance of the nation’s children.

The number of offending teachers increased by nine from the previous record of 67 in the 1996 school year, and by 11 from 1997. The total includes teachers at elementary, junior high and senior high schools. The limited breakdown provided only partly helps in analyzing the situation. The largest number of reprimanded teachers, 34, sexually molested students at their own schools, another 20 committed offenses with students of other schools and the remaining five did so with former students who had graduated from their schools. Japan has long had a reputation for tolerance of men’s sexual misbehavior, but it never consciously included molestation of minors.

The Education Ministry indicates the gravity with which the teachers’ offenses were regarded by noting that a record 53 of them lost their positions as a result, an increase of nine over the previous year. Thirty-four were dismissed outright while another 19 resigned on the advice of superiors. Ten teachers were suspended and four had their salaries reduced. Even considering the total number of teachers in Japanese public schools, these figures are by no means low. They can only hint at the potential for long-term psychological damage inflicted on immature, impressionable young people.

The ministry apparently was gratified to note that the number of teachers reprimanded for inflicting corporal punishment on students in 1998 registered a decline, down 31 cases for a total of 383. That is still far too many since some of the most widely publicized incidents resulted in long-term or even permanent physical damage to students — on the ostensible grounds of teaching them discipline. Ministry officials say they are calling on prefectural boards of education to crack down on teachers who engage in any form of sexual harassment or physical punishment, but how much weight can that move have when specific details on the offenses committed are almost never forthcoming?

It is of major importance that the ministry survey also noted this striking fact: Among the 4,352 teachers who took sick leave in the 1998 school year, a record 1,707 or 39.2 percent did so for reasons of “mental distress.” At the start of a new century and in the face of a constantly declining birthrate, the time is right for a long, hard look at what the public wants from its school system, as well as what it can reasonably expect. Halfway measures to restore discipline at all levels will not be enough, especially in view of reports that Liberal Democratic Party Diet members are eager to review the Fundamental Education Law to revise what they consider its “excessive” emphasis on the individual.

A beginning step should be reducing class size. A recent survey by an educational study committee found that more than 90 percent of school boards nationwide want to see the present limit of 40 students per class in elementary and junior high schools reduced to 35 or 30, or even 25. Another needed advance would be recruiting teachers with a broader range of skills and backgrounds, including work experience in other fields. Only days before the Education Ministry announced the disciplinary steps taken against erring teachers in 1998, one of its advisory committees called for greater emphasis on character instead of academic ability in teacher hiring. It is advice that needs urgent attention.

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