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Friday, Nov. 24, 2006

Everyone neglecting problem: experts

Staff writer

Unlike some Western countries that have long been taking action to curb bullying in schools, education experts say Japan has not been able to deal with the problem because people are failing to make a concerted effort.

"It seems to me that parents, schools and governments overseas have been able to face issues together. But that's not the case here in Japan," said Takashi Ota, honorary chairman of the Japanese Society for the Protection of Children, a group of more than 130 teachers and education specialists.

The British Department of Education and Skills worked with university experts to create a bullying prevention program in the late 1980s.

The program includes student counseling, classroom discussions on the issue and teaching people how to deal with intimidation.

The United States tries to address equally the problems of the victim and the aggressor. School and community programs include counseling for bullies and teaching their targets how to get help.

Ota claims that implementing similar programs in Japan would not be easy.

One of the main reasons, he said, is the strict "vertical administrative system," in which the education ministry and local boards of education do not get involved in the running of schools. They set out the national curriculum and issue directives, and schools are left to figure out how to comply.

"Many schools lie in their reports about the number of bullying incidents in their premises," Ota said, because they are too concerned with protecting the school's reputation and making a good impression on the ministry and boards of education so they can get more funding. This makes it hard to know how serious the problem is, he said.

The education system puts too much emphasis on academic achievement, he figured.

"The current effort to revise the education law is headed in the wrong direction. It is trying to put in place good schooling by putting more academic pressure (on students), when the focus should be on addressing the values and morals of the students," Ota said, adding that if the revision bill currently in the Diet is passed, "things may become chaotic."

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has weighed in on the bullying issue, saying last week that the victims were "spoiled and weak" and that the recent spate of letters sent to the education ministry, most anonymous and all apparently written by children threatening suicide over bullying, were probably pranks.

Keiichi Hirai of the Waseda Overseas Study Center in Tokyo, who counsels more than 100 kids a year on studying abroad, blames the education system.

He said children in the West are more accepting of individual differences, however, and the high success rate of school dropouts who continue their education overseas may be an indication that problems here with suicide are rooted in the education system and not in the kids' attitudes.

Japanese schools may be putting too much emphasis on academic achievement, including ranking students based only on their test scores, which often create divisions and can lead to confrontations between students, Hirai said.

One client of the study center had complained that the strict focus on academic achievement was unbearable.

"News that school principals are committing suicide because of the compulsory class problems proves that judging everything through achievements and test scores has gone too far," he said.

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