Discipline - Soul-searching as survey reveals Japan's dark side

One in five students suffers harm at the hands of their teachers

As one of the world's most advanced economies, Japan has long had a school system to match, regularly appearing near the top of global education rankings.

But new government research and a slew of unsettling news stories have unearthed a much darker side to the country's schools, characterised by beatings, broken bones and student suicide rather than high test scores.

A government survey published last month revealed that 14,208 students in Japan, in 4,152 different schools, were subjected to corporal punishment from teachers during the past academic year, with one in five suffering some form of injury as a result - despite the practice being banned.

The report showed that 40 students had received fractures or sprains from teacher assaults, while 65 had damaged eardrums.

The results have triggered a bout of national soul-searching, with newspaper editorials calling for authorities to halt the physical abuse by teachers. Education minister Hakubun Shimomura described his ministry's findings as "disgraceful".

Japan outlawed corporal punishment in its schools in 1947, but many teachers - at least 6,721 of them, according to the survey - appear not to have got the message.

That may be because, as one newspaper pointed out, they are able to act with "impunity". The research showed that of the 5,415 teachers who inflicted corporal punishment last year in state schools, only 162 had been disciplined as a result.

The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, an alliance of human rights agencies, argued that disciplining and prosecuting teachers responsible for physical violence was crucial if corporal punishment bans were to work. Other recommended measures included sanctions against headteachers who allowed corporal punishment in their schools, and better teacher training in "positive behaviour management".

Initiative coordinator Peter Newell said: "It is a basic human need to be protected from assaults in your school, as in your home, but the law on its own is not going to stop this from happening. It needs to be enforced rigorously."

He said that, globally, 122 countries had prohibited corporal punishment in schools and 76 had not. Other states where bans were not working included France and Albania (see panel, far left).

The UK was "just about the last" European country to ban the practice, Mr Newell said, but he added that prohibition had worked in Britain because "the culture is against it".

Countries with no ban include Botswana, where, according to research, 92 per cent of children have been beaten in school, and Nepal, where a 2006 study suggested that 82 per cent of students have been given physical punishments.

In the US, private schools can legally use corporal punishment in every state except Iowa and New Jersey. The practice is banned in public schools in 31 states and in the District of Columbia, but not in the remaining 19.

"Corporal punishment has nothing whatever to do with education," Mr Newell said. "It is an entirely negative anti-educational thing, so removing it actually improves schools.

"Of course, teachers need training in behavioural management, and where they face big classes and poor conditions they need help and support. But none of that justifies continued corporal punishment."

In Japan, the latest research was triggered by the suicide of a 17-year- old Osaka high-school student in December. The boy had been repeatedly beaten by his basketball coach.

In the wake of the tragedy, Aaron Miller, an assistant professor at Kyoto University, wrote that modern Japan had developed a "striking ambivalence toward corporal punishment". "The Japanese government may have a law on its books against its use, but every teacher in Japan knows that corporal punishment is a necessary evil they may have to use sometime," he said.

Professor Miller has spent many years studying corporal punishment in the country's schools and recently published a book on the subject. He put at least part of the problem down to Japan's sports culture, finding that coaches inflicting corporal punishment on young athletes saw them as "especially chosen pupils" benefiting from strict training, rather than victims.

"Remarkably, a Japanese sports coach has a six in 10 chance of avoiding punishment himself, even if he admits to Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to having beaten, injured or killed an athlete," Professor Miller wrote in January on news website Japan Today.

"Could it be that the Japanese government is willing to sacrifice a few of these teens so that the unwritten educational philosophy lurking behind corporal punishment - strict guidance for the sake of social order - can continue to flourish?"

Since then the controversy has refused to die down. Last month, after the publication of the government survey, a teacher who repeatedly slapped and kicked an 11-year-old boy - also in Osaka - for failing to bring his homework made the headlines.

So did a teacher who slammed a teenager against a wall several times for making a flippant remark, leaving him with a spinal injury. The latter teacher, in the Chiba prefecture, was punished and fined 10 per cent of his salary. That was not enough for at least one newspaper, which wanted him sacked.

Mr Newell offered the following advice to the Japanese government: "They should ensure that their law really is clear and is very well known to teachers. None of us wants to see valuable teachers removed from teaching unnecessarily but if this is continuing then it needs to be stopped."

Breaking the ban

  • Albania banned corporal punishment in pre-university education in 1995, but research in 2006 found that more than half of children had been hit with an object in school, 38.5 per cent had had their ears pulled and 35.6 per cent had been smacked on the head.
  • Of France, Peter Newell said: "There have been some legal cases suggesting that teachers retain some quite minor forms of corporal punishment. Cuffs round the head and that sort of thing are still reported."
  • In South Africa, corporal punishment in schools continued to be widespread for some time after a 1996 ban, according to Mr Newell. But the prosecution of a small number of teachers meant that the message was now getting across, he said.

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