JAPAN. Rigid discipline and regular physical exercise in schools are staging a comeback, following a recent rise in truancy, writes John Greenlees. The Daini Kikari Centre on the outskirts of Tokyo is Japan's toughest school. The centre's 400 pupils, all between the ages of three and six, are subjected to demanding lessons, rigid classroom discipline and regular physical exercise as part of a regime intended to toughen and prepare pre-schoolers for Japan's highly competitive education system.
The school's dress code is restricted to shorts, shoes and bare chests in order to help the youngsters endure the elements and become physically and mentally stronger than other children. Even during Tokyo's coldest winters lessons are taken in unheated rooms with the windows open.
"Bare-chested children are more active and resilient than other children, " said Soji Matsumoto, Daini Kikari's headteacher. "Very few of our children suffer from colds or experience asthma and other respiratory problems."
Parents seem to endorse the school's tough physical regime and strict code of conduct. There is a long waiting-list for places at Daini Kikari, which charges fees of around Pounds 1,500 a year.
Other kindergartens are adopting similar approaches by increasing the number of physical routines and marching sessions in their daily timetables. Young pupils are also receiving more lessons on manners, including how to bow properly to their teachers and parents.
Japan's elementary and high schools are also toughening up on discipline. Dress codes are being enforced more stringently and a growing number of schools are providing students with detailed rule books. In addition, every pupil has to take part in an end-of-day clean-up programme to help tidy their classrooms, corridors and school grounds.
In high schools the daily clean-up session is followed by 60 to 90 minutes of compulsory sports and club activities. Martial arts clubs, including karate and kendo, are proving a particularly popular means of assisting young people's physical and spiritual development.
After-school crammers, which over half the nation's senior high-school pupils now attend, are offering tuition which promotes the sort of strong discipline and fighting spirit that many parents and teachers believe is essential for pupils preparing for the competitive entrance exams which determine admission to university.
The growing fondness for tougher discipline follows what was seen as a weakening of school rules during the early 1990s after a series of much-publicised assaults and accidents involving high-school pupils.
"The tragic death of a pupil, after a teacher slammed a gate to shut out latecomers, encouraged schools to relax some of their more stringent rules, " explains high-school teacher Satoshi Yamamoto.
But many teachers feel that some schools eased up on too many of their rules and that stronger discipline is more important than ever before.
Certainly, influential parent-teacher associations are looking to school principals to tighten up discipline. The recent rise in juvenile delinquency and school truancy has been blamed on schools with relaxed attitudes to work and discipline. A recent survey of high-school PTAs revealed that most parents want school principals to enforce stricter dress codes and more rigid discipline.