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Japanese children are in the news these days with a frequency that would have astonished earlier generations. Hardly a day goes by without reports of some new disturbing incident, ranging from heinous crimes committed by minors to instances of serious child abuse or neglect. When the news is not about incidents in which children themselves are directly involved, it often concerns plans and programs devised by central government or education establishment “experts” that have the unstated goal of making the younger generation conform better to adult standards. Thus, it is a welcome and refreshing surprise to learn that the Kawasaki Municipal Assembly passed an ordinance this month that spells out in statutory form the basic general rights of minors.

At a time of repeated indications of increasing alienation among Japanese youth, the Kawasaki assembly’s bold action deserves support. The municipal ordinance, which takes effect on April 1, 2001, was passed after more than two years of study and preparation. It is especially noteworthy that the advisory panel which studied the proposal for such an ordinance included not only educators and adult private citizens, but junior and senior high school students as well. Reports indicate that before the group produced its draft of the new children’s rights code it first heard the opinions of as many as 30 elementary, junior high and senior high school students. The result is that prominent among the rights stipulated are the right to live without anxiety, the right for children to be themselves and the right to participate in society.

At first glance, the codification of these and other rights may seem uncontroversial. Yet on the very day that the media reported the passage of the Kawasaki ordinance, reports were also carried that the police had investigated 163 cases of child abuse in the 10 months between January and October, an increase of 55.2 percent from the previous year. Add this to the continuing reports of bullying and corporal punishment in the nation’s schools, despite supposed signs of improvement, along with the unending emphasis on examinations and test results, and it is easy to understand why living “without anxiety” assumes such importance in the children’s-rights ordinance.

Kawasaki’s mayor, Mr. Kiyoshi Takahashi, and the city’s municipal assembly have achieved a notable first, but the new ordinance has some drawbacks that cannot be ignored. While it technically requires the compliance of parents, educators and the officials of any facility dealing with children, and while it bans violence and corporal punishment against children, it lacks any provision for penalties to be imposed on violators. In addition, the ordinance merely “urges” school principals and the heads of children’s facilities to communicate regularly with youths on administration and management No matter how well-intended such a provision may be, it is unlikely to receive more than token observance.

The plan to establish an office within the city’s integrated ombudsman system to investigate reported infringements of children’s rights is a step in the right direction. However, the call for setting up a “children’s assembly” to incorporate the ideas and opinions of young citizens in the city’s administration runs the risk of becoming entangled in municipal red tape. Yet it also suggests an unusual degree of willingness by adult officials to give children the opportunity to voice their views, and for that reason alone deserves commendation.

The National Police Agency has just issued a report indicating that 22 of the 25 underage boys charged with serious crimes between January 1998 and May of this year displayed signs of antisocial behavior before they acted. Some showed an obsessive interest in knives, while others told friends of their intention to kill or hurt people. Yet family members and officials of the schools attended by these minors failed to detect or to act on the warning signs.

When and if they are asked about their problems and concerns, many of today’s children and teenagers appear more willing than those of former years to respond directly in ways that are sometimes only thinly veiled pleas for help. In a nationwide survey conducted by the Management and Coordination Agency among 3,000 elementary and high school students, more than one-fourth of those responding acknowledged a tendency to extreme anger and violence. Nearly 30 percent complained that noisy behavior and other disturbances in the classroom made it difficult to concentrate. If other towns and cities follow Kawasaki’s lead, improvements that are more than promises could be on the way.

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