TV & Radio
Japan Tackles School Violence
Critics say new education-reform plans don't address crucial issues affecting students.
By Christian Caryl and Akiko Kashiwagi
Jan. 15, 2007 issue - For Ayumi Yabe, now 18, the agony started back in first grade. A boy in her class singled her out for harassment. "Go die!" he'd scream at her—and a crowd of others soon joined in. As she got older, still other boys took to harrying her with taunts and threats on the way home. Sometimes the bullies would push her to the ground and make her eat berries that made her sick. Most painfully, she says, her teachers refused to help. Once, after receiving a death threat from a fifth-grade classmate, she passed the note to her teacher, who then read it in front of the class. "Our school was so detached," she remarks. Small wonder that she soon began to think about finding a way out. "I began to wish I was dead. I just didn't have the energy to live."
Luckily for Yabe, her resourceful mom managed to track down a refuge—one of Japan's rare alternative schools. Most children in the country aren't so fortunate. In recent months the media have been rife with gruesome stories about school-age suicides, most of them apparent responses to an epidemic of bullying. In the eyes of many Japanese, that scandal merely mirrors the country's lingering education crisis. Experts say standardized-test scores are falling, and so is the motivation to learn among secondary-school students. Critics also say there is less order and discipline in today's classrooms. Bullying, long a problem, is said to be worse than ever. "I think the number of bullying cases has been rising sharply, but it's getting increasingly difficult to keep track because many are not straightforward," says Midori Komori, a housewife turned antibullying activist. (Since her daughter committed suicide after being bullied, she's been visiting dozens of schools to fight the problem.) "The nature of bullying has become entirely different from years ago. Thanks to mobile phones and the Internet, kids today can send a curse in a click behind the scenes, without alerting the parents of the bullied."
Small wonder, then, that the new administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has rushed to enact what the government calls a "bold" new plan to reform the schools. Last month Japan's Diet, or Parliament, easily passed the educational-reform bill. The problem, critics say, is that the plan isn't bold at all. Indeed, Abe now is facing a revolt from disappointed teachers, parents and even some of his own education experts, who say that the new bill does little more than institutionalize the teaching of morality and "patriotism" in Japanese schools and fails to address the day-to-day concerns of the country's beleaguered schoolkids. Critics say Abe's education plans don't even mention the need to promote more creative thinking among students—which experts have cited for years as a weakness in the system—and do not address other key issues, such as school vouchers and the reform of local boards of education. "Educational reform continues to go astray," blared the influential liberal daily Asahi Shimbun, which criticized Abe's education reform for its failure to address core problems.
The controversy has heightened concern about Abe's lack of leadership. Three months ago, following his deft handling of the North Korean nuclear test and his diplomatic overtures to China and South Korea, his approval rating was about 70 percent. But it's since plummeted to 47 percent, according to a recent survey, partly because of the public's growing unease about Japan's education system. Experts say that improving the school system is necessary to foster future global leaders, boost the productivity of the Japanese economy and, by extension, strengthen the country's creaky welfare state, which is under severe strain from a rapidly aging population.
Reformers say that Japan's education system is too rigid, bureaucratic and obsessed with rote learning and conformity, to the detriment of students. The Ministry of Education runs the school system with an iron fist; it has strict guidelines for teacher hiring, establishes the curriculum and mandates how student problems should be handled. Bullying, say social experts, is a manifestation of the pressure kids are under to succeed. Kids in hypercompetitive classrooms seem to require little incentive to gang up on each other. One favored tactic: the silent treatment, which can translate into entire classrooms resolutely refusing to dignify the target with greetings or routine chitchat.
Reliable statistics are elusive, but the number of bullying cases handled by the National Police Agency hit 165 in 2005, compared with 93 in 1997. Many social commentators argue that the problem is, in fact, much worse, since many (if not most) cases simply aren't reported to teachers or school administrators. Worries about the issue peaked last fall, when at least seven children committed suicide in a two-month period. Bunmei Ibuki, Japan's minister of Education, Science and Technology, blamed the problem on deteriorating social morality and said: "We have to seek ways to restores ties among families and the community, which are now shifting their responsibilities onto teachers." The MOE is supersensitive about the bullying problem—so much so that the agency insists, astoundingly, that there were no student suicides linked to bullying between 1999 and 2005.
Komori begs to differ. Her daughter committed suicide in 1998. Komori has spent the past eight years trying to get information pertaining to her daughter's death from the high school she attended. But neither the school nor the MOE will provide any details. Now she's taking the school to court. The case is all too emblematic, Komori says, of an entrenched bureaucratic mentality. "The basic rule is, you look the other way," she says.
Reformers assert that individual schools need more autonomy when dealing with issues such as bullying, and should be allowed to hire teachers from varied backgrounds to help nurture creativity. Abe supposedly agrees. But the new law only gives more power to the MOE. "[The reform] will increase government control and reinforce the current trend toward intensifying competition in school," insists Yoshihiro Izumi, a 51-year-old Tokyo elementary-school teacher who recently joined 5,000 other protesters in front of the Diet objecting to the new bill, which they fear would increase the state's oversight. "I believe that bullying occurs in a society where human rights are oppressed."
An education-advisory panel is now studying how Japan can revitalize its schools. The group is supposed to make its recommendations to Abe in late January. The final report must be vetted by the Ministry of Education and politicians from the ruling LDP, who reformers say would rather not see existing policies radically modified. If Abe wants to convince voters that his heart is in the right place, he may have to come back to the education issue and show that he's genuinely committed to reform.
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.
By Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Saturday, January 6, 2007
TOKYO — Nearly one in four servicemembers knows definitively that a member of his or her unit is gay or lesbian, according to a survey released last month.
Twenty-three percent of the 545 servicemembers surveyed online over three days in October said they knew “for certain” they were serving with someone who is gay, according to a Zogby International poll. The poll was commissioned by and designed in conjunction with the Michael D. Palm Center, a research institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that was formerly the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military.
The institute’s main goal includes studying the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. According to its Web site, the institute “promotes the interdisciplinary analysis of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other marginalized sexual identities in the armed forces.”
When survey respondents were asked how they knew the person’s sexual orientation, 59 percent said they had been told by that individual, according to the poll.
However, when the respondents were asked whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military, 37 percent disagreed with the idea, 26 percent agreed with the idea, and 32 percent said they felt neutral about changing the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
The survey, released last month, was one piece of evidence former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili used this week in calling for a new discussion about the 1993 policy that prohibits gays from openly serving in the military.
Shalikashvili, a retired Army general, headed the Joint Chiefs when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was created. Back then he supported it. This week, he called on leaders to revisit the policy in part because Zogby’s poll, released Dec. 19, found that three-quarters of those surveyed “said they were comfortable interacting with gay people,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Jan. 2 edition of The New York Times.
The online poll targeted active-duty, veterans, reservists and Guard members from every military branch who are deployed to or recently returned from wartime missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Dr. Aaron Belkin, a political science professor at Santa Barbara and head of the Palm Center.
Belkin said he believed the finding that one in four servicemembers knows of a gay colleague shows the current policy isn’t working.
“No one is supposed to know a gay peer,” Belkin said during a phone interview Thursday. “To see that was a surprise.”
The questions ranged from the servicemembers’ personal feelings about the presence of gay people in any setting, to the effect an openly gay servicemember might have on unit morale, to the frequency of private showers while in combat conditions.
The survey also allowed participants to comment on their views on the morality of both homosexuality and the military’s ban of openly gay members.
On one hand, 25 percent of those surveyed said homosexuality violates their religious or moral beliefs. On the other, 30 percent said it is wrong of the Pentagon to discriminate against servicemembers based on sexual orientation.
Overall, the results found that those who believed they knew someone gay in their unit were more likely to be tolerant of the idea of openly gay servicemembers, as were less-experienced military members and women. Longer-serving servicemembers and officers, as well as all men surveyed, were less likely to be comfortable serving side-by-side with gay or lesbian people.
Of the total 545 surveyed, 78 percent said they would join the military regardless of the existence of openly gay servicemembers in the ranks. But one in 10 said they would “definitely or probably not” have joined the military if gays served openly.
The current policy states that gays and lesbians may serve in the military only if they keep their sexual orientation private. Commanders may not ask, and gay servicemembers may not tell.
Over the years, thousands have been dismissed under this policy. Two dozen countries, including U.S. allies such as Great Britain and Israel, allow for openly gay members.
The survey respondents also gave high marks to their overall training, and the training of their leaders. Eighty-two percent felt very well or well trained for their wartime mission. Four in five respondents said they felt their noncommissioned officers were good leaders.
Some in Europe support gays but oppose them in ranks
By Matt Millham, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Saturday, January 6, 2007
Most servicemembers say they are comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians, according to a Zogby poll released in December.
This doesn’t mean, however, that most troops want to see gays serving openly alongside them in combat.
Troops across Europe gave their takes on gays serving openly in the military just days after retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili came out Tuesday in support of such a change in policy.
Troops interviewed by Stars and Stripes were mostly supportive of the idea, and some hoped the policy would change. Others cited such things as possible harassment and religious beliefs as reasons for being opposed.
“Some people are ignorant and think that gays are different people, but they’re not," said Senior Airman Fredy Pasco, an information manager journeyman at the Joint Analysis Center at RAF Molesworth, England.
For that reason, Pasco said, allowing gays to serve openly isn’t a good idea and “may cause problems.”
Among those who do not want to see the current policy overturned is Air Force Maj. Richard Brown, a political/military analyst for the Joint Analysis Center on RAF Molesworth, England. Asked if he thought gay and lesbian servicemembers should be able to serve openly, Brown said, “I don’t think so because the Bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong.”
Army Capt. Stephanie Meyer at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany was less inclined to let her personal feelings on homosexuality dictate her stance on gays serving openly.
“I’m not going to put my moral beliefs on anybody else,” Meyer said. “If we’re going to talk about EO (equal opportunity) and all this kind of culture in the military, we need to keep our personal perspectives out of it. As long as it doesn’t interfere with the mission, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Others echoed Meyer’s points or took them even further.
“For me, it doesn’t really make a difference. I have no trouble right now. If the policy changed, I wouldn’t have any trouble,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Trever Scott at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
Master Sgt. Shannon Adams of Aviano said he doesn’t think the policy has any effect on him.
“I’ve seen the policy change since I’ve been in and … really, I didn’t notice a difference,” he said. “I don’t want to say that people don’t have an opinion on it, but I don’t think it affects most people.”
“I guess being in the U.S. Army, where we defend freedom, to place restrictions on people who are physically capable of doing the job is discrimination,” said Spc. David Powell, a member of the 32nd Signal Battalion in Darmstadt, Germany.
Both Powell and his wife have openly gay friends, he said, and for him, serving alongside openly gay troops is “not an issue.”
Other opinions were more pragmatic, if not supportive, of serving with gays.
“Can the soldier do the job? What they do behind closed doors should never affect me. That’s how I look at it,” said Army Master Sgt. James R. Mosher, at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
“We are to be a reflection of our society,” Mosher said. “If our society’s saying we are not discriminating against gays and lesbians, then we shouldn’t discriminate against gays and lesbians because we are a reflection of society.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Steve Mraz, Sean Kimmons and Kent Harris contributed to this report.