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After a decrease over the last five years, the number of students who refuse to go to school has started to increase again. According to the education ministry, the number of elementary and junior high school students absent more than 30 days a year for reasons other than sickness and financial difficulties topped 120,000 again in fiscal 2014. Nearly one student in every class, on average, is now failing to attend.

The number of students refusing to go to school hasn’t dipped below 100,000 since 1997, a consistent problem that needs addressing. The education ministry should work harder to ensure all students can feel comfortable at school.

The reasons for refusing to attend are not hard to guess. In interviews, students cite anxiety and other emotional problems, psychological exhaustion, and troubles with friends and teachers as the primary reasons. Bullying has recently been considered a distinct, though of course related, problem, in order to focus on solving that particular problem more proactively.

The truancy rate is not the same everywhere, though. At schools with counselors the rate is much lower. Clearly, the education ministry should work toward ensuring there are more counselors at more schools. Counselors serve many purposes, but chief among them is to treat students as individuals with particular needs and concerns, and to find solutions that work.

Since the ministry has done little to reduce class sizes or teacher workloads in recent years, counselors now have to do some of the work teachers did in the past.

Families, too, play a role. Since both parents are working more than ever before and single-parent families continue to increase, a growing number of students are being left alone at home. A survey by the OECD in 2012 found that in all member countries surveyed, there was a strong link between school attendance and teenagers eating the main meal of the day with parents.

What is often left out of the debate is that in many cases, students’ resistance may be a reasonable response. Given the inability of young people to articulate their concerns in words or other constructive ways, refusing to go to school can be understood as a protest against the educational system’s continuing overemphasis on testing, teacher-centered management, rote memorization and other out-of-date practices. That is a larger problem, but one that must also be solved by changing classroom practices.

The education ministry also needs to work together with many of the programs for truants set up by nonprofit groups, nongovernmental organizations and parental groups. Those organizations want to create not just one but as many solutions as needed for the individual pressures and problems students face.

The government should seek their insight, help and experience, as well as including teachers, counselors and administrators in deciding what to do.

The number of students not attending school can be seen as a grade for the Japanese education system. It does not score well.

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