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Japanese Fret About Troubled Youth

August 21, 1999

KUJI, Japan (AP) _ Ask Kinichi Kuwabara about his future, and he just shrugs.

``I don’t really care much about it,″ says the 15-year-old, who hasn’t gone to school for six years. ``Everyone says, `The future, the future,′ but ...″ He shrugs again.

Kinichi may not be very concerned, but his elders are.

Japan is distraught over its troubled youth. Schools are struggling with rising absenteeism, violence and bullying. Juvenile delinquency and teen prostitution are growing problems. Teen suicides are up.

Beyond the headlines are other quiet but foreboding signs: young people with trouble forming friendships; a deepening rift between parents and children; splintering respect among kids for school and family.

``While we have high hopes for our youth, today we cannot deny that the problems facing young people ... are grave,″ the government said earlier this year in a 580-page report on young people.

The forces behind these changes are being fiercely debated. Some blame Japan’s group-oriented society and conformist education system for being out of step with a more individualistic age. Others say modern wealth and doting parents have created an unruly brood of brats.

Whatever the reason, the youthful turmoil has been hard to understand for many Japanese, who largely expected that the hard-earned wealth of the postwar years would give their children happier, more comfortable lives.

``Society has changed so fast a generation gap has opened,″ says Keiko Okuchi, director of Tokyo Shure, an alternative school for dropouts. ``Children feel misunderstood, and parents can’t figure out what their kids are thinking.″

Kinichi is one of those kids. In a country that pushes children to get a good education above all else, this son of an elementary school teacher stopped going to school in the fourth grade. He tried junior high once _ and lasted a week.

``There was no time to play; the food was bad. I just couldn’t see the point,″ Kinichi says, strumming a guitar with friends at a club for other ``school-refusers″ in Kuji, just outside Tokyo.

Kinichi is not your average Japanese teen. Most children here are busy doing what they’re expected to do _ without the school shootings and rampant drug use that afflict peers in the United States.

``It’s the people who can’t work together in groups that are getting all the attention,″ complains Takayuki Otsuka, a 17-year-old high school junior in Shin-Urayasu, a suburb of Tokyo.

Still, that stability is showing signs of erosion.

One area of deep concern is crime. The number of people between the ages of 14 and 19 arrested in Japan ratcheted up 14 percent in 1997, and rose an additional 3 percent in 1998.

Unrest is also growing in Japan’s schools. ``School-refusers″ like Kinichi _ young people who miss 30 days or more of class, or don’t go at all _ are on the rise, though they still only account for 2 percent of youngsters. School is mandatory through elementary and junior high, but authorities don’t lean too heavily on those who don’t attend.

And the kids going to school are more like to cause trouble.

Elementary school teachers are increasingly losing control of their classes in an explosion in what the Japanese call ``classroom collapse,″ when one or a small group of students roil the whole class.

More teachers are burning out or taking leaves of absences to recover from frayed nerves, and the issue dominates teachers union conventions. The Education Ministry is in the midst of an in-depth study of the problem.

Even young people’s personalities have come under scrutiny _ and been found lacking.

``In general, Japanese children lack a sense of being considerate towards others,″ says Yoshimasa Nakazato, a researcher at Tokyo’s Toyo University who has compared the attitudes of Japanese youths with those of other nations. ``In the past ten years, they have just gotten worse.″

The backdrop to these troubles is a society that has undergone a rapid transformation in the past few decades.

The big, extended families of prewar Japan have been replaced by nuclear families of ever fewer children. More mothers are working. Divorce is on the rise. And the demands of modern corporations mean fathers are largely absent from the home.

The result is a lonelier life for today’s child. While modern Japanese parents have plenty of money for toys and gadgets, they have fewer opportunities for the less expensive _ but more important _ aspects of raising children, critics say.

``Parents are so busy, they don’t have time to talk to their kids,″ says Yayoi Hoshino, a mother of two and general secretary of Childline, a hotline service for troubled youngsters in Tokyo. ``And kids are reluctant to talk about their problems to their parents.″

At a time when children have less stable, supportive environments at home, the traditional pressure to succeed at school only seems to be building. Affluence and rising competition mean that kids’ lives are filled with a relentless drumbeat of after-school cram courses and piano or English lessons from increasingly early ages.

``Children don’t have the time or place to be relaxed. They can’t find such a place in schools or at home,″ Hoshino says. ``They need a lot of time to meet their obligations.″

At the same time, children today are caught in a pivotal cultural clash between traditional, group-oriented Japanese values and growing individualism. A decade-long economic slump has nearly everyone questioning Japan’s postwar system.

At the center of the storm is a conflicted generation of young people.

``If you talk to these kids, you realize they’ve totally lost confidence in themselves,″ says Hiroyuki Nishino, head of Tamariba, the club where Kinichi and other young teens spend their days.

The proposed remedies to Japan’s youthful malaise are as varied as its causes.

In its report on youth earlier this year, the government called on parents to spend more time with their children. Others are urging schools to teach morals and the courts to fall harder on youthful offenders.

The school system is also facing calls for a vast overhaul to cut the emphasis on conformism and allow youngsters to express their ideas and individuality. Corporations have been urged to give fathers more time to spend with their families.

Considering all the pressures facing them, it’s not surprising that more young people are buckling under _ or breaking out.

Yuko Honma, 17, is one of the dissenters, and seems to embody both the lack of direction and spirit of defiance growing among young people here.

On a trip with a girlfriend from their hometown of Sendai in northern Japan, she hit the streets of Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district recently with no plans other than to soak up the city atmosphere for a day or two.

Yuko quit school in the first year of high school and openly admits to being selfish and rebellious _ and makes the point with hotpants, frosted hair and sparkles glistening on her cheeks.

She sees her appearance and attitude as a direct challenge to the older generation’s ethic of blending into the crowd.

``This is the way I like it, so leave me alone,″ she says when asked how she reacts to criticism of her lifestyle and dress. ``I want to stand out.″

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