ABSENTEE STUDENTS AND SCHOOL REFUSAL SYNDROME IN JAPAN

ABSENTEE STUDENTS IN JAPAN

Hutoko ("absentee students") or “school refusal” is a serious problem among students and its is getting worse. It is characterized by children who refuse to go to school for one month or more a year and become isolated. Sometimes they rarely leave their homes or rooms and spend all their time sleeping, watching television, playing video games and surfing the Internet. Some spend years in isolation and end up as maladjusted adults.

About 134,000 elementary and junior school students were absent from school for more than 30 consecutive days during the 2000-001 school year, double the number of the previous year. According to an another survey about 1 in 85 middle school student missed 50 days or more of school because of school phobia. The rate is increasing every year.

Many of those who chronically skip school are embarrassed because the do poorly in school or they have no friends. Some are victims of bullying. One child who refused to go to school after he got roughed up by some students told AP, "I didn't have any friends and I wasn't part of any group. One survey found that 20 percent of the students in elementary school feel tried of being with others and unable to trust others.

Hutoko is sometimes a precursor to hikokomori. See Living, Society, Social Problems.

To address this problem and other problems the number of alternative schools is growing. Special schools have been set for absentee students that get them interacting with others who share their problem and teach them life skills as well as school subjects.

Students with School Refusal Syndrome

The Ministry of Education (MOE) defines “school refusal syndrome (to-ko-kyohi)” as “the phenomenon where students do not go to school or cannot go to school, despite a desire to go to school, due to some psychological, emotional, physical and/or social factor, and environment, with the exception of illness or economic factors” (Monbusho- 1999f).1 In the 1960s, those students were diagnosed as “school phobic,” based on psychiatric behavioral abnormalities. These students were distinguished from the students whose non-attendance was caused by financial and family problems (Morita1991b:18). Since the 1980s, the number of students with school refusal syndrome has been increasing rapidly, and school refusal syndrome has become a nationwide school problem. In 1966, the MOE began to keep records of those students who were absent from school for 50 days or more because of “school phobia.” However, since 1991, the MOE has counted those who were absent from school for 30 days or more in terms of school refusal syndrome. These students are called “the students of non-attendance at school (futo-ko-sei).” [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

The number of students with school refusal syndrome in the 2001-2 school year was the highest since the first records were kept in 1966. Approximately 139,000 children, including 27,000 elementary school students (one out of every 275) and 112,000 middle school students (one out of every 36) were out of school for at least 30 days. This is twice as many as the number of 66,817 recorded in 1991 (Monbukagakusho- 2002a; Monbukagakusho- 2002b). The magnitude of this problem indicates that the causes of school refusal syndrome remain unaddressed. However, in the 2002-3 school year, the number of students with school refusal syndrome decreased to 131,000 students with school refusal syndrome from the 2001-2 school year (Monbukagakusho- 2004a). According to a 2004 survey, teachers and/or school counselors cannot personally see 28.2 percent of students with school refusal syndrome, even when they visit their home (AS April 16, 2004). ~

Many more students drag themselves to school with the burden of anxiety and tension, and exhibit the symptoms of school refusal syndrome. According to a 1988 survey of 6,000 eighth graders, 70.8 percent of them have thought that they did not want to go to school, and one-fourth of them tended to be absent, be late, or go home early. If the children have a hard time getting up in the morning or dawdled instead of getting ready in the morning, they may eventually develop school refusal syndrome (Morita 1991a:24, 26, 137; Takagaki 1995:153, 155). ~

Types of School Refusal Syndrome

Two types of students have school refusal syndrome: those who cannot go to school because of emotional or neurotic problems; and those students who do not intend to go to school because of truancy. Truants deliberately skip school to spend time with their friends. They tend to be low-achievers, act rebelliously toward teachers, be late for school, ditch classes, and have family problems. About 14 percent of middle school students with school refusal syndrome are truants. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Many students with school refusal syndrome want to go to school and/or think that they should go to school, but cannot because of emotional disturbance, anxiety, or some other neurotic problem. School refusal syndrome frequently means specifically this type of student, not the truant. One-third of elementary school students and one-fourth of middle school students with school refusal syndrome have emotional disturbances. One-fourth of students with school refusal syndrome feel apathetic towards school and do not feel like going to school. One-third of elementary school students and one-fourth of middle school students with school refusal syndrome have several combined causes. ~

These children usually stay at home and do not like to meet people. Many of the students with school refusal syndrome have sleep disorders and abnormal hormone secretion (AS July 13, 1999). To all appearances, they are ordinary children with average or above average school performances. However, they tend to be overly sensitive, anxious, serious, perfectionist, selfish, timid, and/or anti-sociable. Their parents, in particular their mothers, are likely to be overprotective and demanding (Inamura 1994:12, 103, 138). ~

Types of School Refusal Categorized by Schools in the 2001-2 School Year: 1) Elementary School (26,503 cases): A) Problems in school: 5.3 percent; B) Delinquency: 0.7 percent; C) Not feeling like going, apathy: 17.9 percent; D) Emotional disturbance: 32.8 percent; E) No intention of going: 3.4 percent; F) Several reasons: 30.7 percent; G) Others: 9.2 percent; 2) Middle School (138,696 cases): A) Problems in school: 7.5 percent; B) Delinquency: 13.6 percent; C) Not feeling like going, apathy: 17.9 percent; D) Emotional disturbance: 32.8 percent; E) No intention of going: 4.9 percent; F) Several reasons: 24.3 percent; G) Others: 4.2 percent. (Source: Monbukagakusho- 2002b). ~

Causes of School Refusal Syndrome

Teachers and schools, not students, listed the causes of school absenteeism for the students in the survey. The causes can be school-related (19.7 percent for elementary school students and 40.2 percent for middle school students), family and home problems (28.9 percent/16.8 percent), and the students’ own physical and emotional health (36.6 percent/34.6 percent)(Table 4.2). However, the main cause of school refusal syndrome is problems with peers, especially bullying. According to the 1988 survey, about one-third of students with school refusal syndrome said they would not go to school because of bullying (Ho-musho- 1994:32). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Poor academic performance accounts for 8.9 percent of school refusal syndrome cases in middle school students, many of whom are also troubled students. Family problems, such as divorce and poor relationships with parents, can also cause school refusal syndrome. More than one-fourth of the cases of school refusal syndrome are linked to the psychoneurotic problems, such as emotional disturbance, extreme anxieties, and stress. ~

Direct Causes of School Refusal as Reported by Schools in the 2001-2 School Year: 1) Elementary School (26,406 cases): A) Friends (e.g., bulling, quarrels): 10.8 percent; B) Teachers (e.g., punishment, scolding): 2.2 percent; C) Poor academic performance: 3.2 percent; D) Extracurricular clubs: 0.2 percent; E) School rules: 0.4 percent; F) New schools, new classes, transfers: 2.9 percent; G) Change of home life (e.g., father's transfer): 8.2 percent; H) Parents (e.g., scolding, rebellion): 16.5 percent; I) Family problem (e.g., quarrels between parents): 4.2 percent; J) Illness: 7.3 percent; K) Other reasons relating to themselves (e.g., extreme anxiety and stress): 29.3 percent; L) Others: 8.2 percent; M) Unclear: 6.6 percent; 2) Middle School (110,198 cases): A) Friends (e.g., bulling, quarrels): 21.9 percent; B) Teachers (e.g., punishment, scolding): 1.5 percent; C) Poor academic performance: 8.9 percent; D) Extracurricular clubs: 1.4 percent; E) School rules: 3.4 percent; F) New schools, new classes, transfers: 3.1 percent; G) Change of home life (e.g., father's transfer): 4.9 percent; H) Parents (e.g., scolding, rebellion): 8.0 percent; I) Family problem (e.g., quarrels between parents): 3.9 percent; J) Illness: 6.2 percent; K) Other reasons relating to themselves (e.g., extreme anxiety and stress): 28.4 percent; L) Others: 3.2 percent; M) Unclear: 5.2 percent. (Source: Monbukagakusho- 2002b). ~

Since the 1980s, the rising number of students with school refusal syndrome has been attributed to the “weak” and spoiled children of the “wealthy society,” and the intense pressure of the “educational credential society.” Until the 1960s, middle school students with school absenteeism were mainly students living in poverty who had to work to help support their impoverished families, or truants who were mostly from disadvantaged and poor families. As a result of the economic boom of 1953-1973, almost all Japanese consider themselves middle class. Since the 1970s they have enjoyed unprecedented material wealth. Consequently, the majority of students with school refusal syndrome no longer come from economically disadvantaged families. ~

Several studies suggest several reasons for the rapid increase of students with school refusal syndrome. One is that children have been overly indulged by their parents. With the prevalence of one- or two-child families, children are spoiled and have become accustomed to getting their own way. Another reason is that students are exhausted from too much schoolwork and from too many expectations from their parents (Takagaki et al. 1995a:5-6; Morita 1991b: 10; Inamura 1994:138). ~

Supports for Students with School Refusal Syndrome

The Kagawa prefectural board of education issues a manual, informing parents of early signs of school refusal syndrome. Children who may be suffering from school refusal syndrome frequently complain about their friends or their teachers. They may withdraw to their rooms, saying that they are tired. They may appear depressed or apathetic, and their grades may start to drop. They may delay going to school by taking an inordinate amount of time to prepare for school, and may try to avoid going to school by saying that their head or stomach hurts, especially on Mondays (Kagawa-ken 2000). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

The manual also mentions the early signs that children evince in schools: 1) they become quiet, and start to play with younger children; 2) they are isolated from their friends, and stay alone in the classroom; 3) they lose enthusiasm and become passive in classes; 4) they begin to go to see a nurse teacher in the health room during recess; 5) they lose their concentration, and become negligent in classes; and 6) they forget to bring their homework. The manual advises parents to consult homeroom teachers, school counselors, and public counseling centers when their children exhibit any of these symptoms. Parents are encouraged to be open to children and to create a warm and welcoming home environment. Moreover, they should not be too interruptive. It is also important for children to assist with chores around the house (Kagawa-ken 2000). ~

Efforts to Get Students with School Refusal Syndrome Back in School

It is important to build a support network of teachers, parents, nurse teachers, counselors, and physicians to help students with school refusal syndrome return to school or to find an alternative means of education. Nurse teachers have taken significant roles in counseling students with school refusal syndrome in their health care rooms. According to a 1995-1996 survey, 28,400 students spent their school days in the public health room, instead of the classroom (Ogi 2000:102). Since the 1995 amendment to the School Education Law, nurse teachers can be the chief educator of public health, and since the 1998 Amendment to the Law of the Teaching Certificate, nurse teachers with at least three years of experience can teach public health classes in middle schools and physical education in elementary schools (Morita et al. 1999:237). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Among students who were absent from school for 30 days or more in the 1997-8 school year, one-fourth returned to school by March 1998. Teachers may help these children return to school in several ways. Teachers may visit the students at home and discuss their schoolwork and social lives with them. By calling the students, or picking them up in the morning, teachers show an interest in their students and persuade them to attend school. Discussions with parents about the environment at home may reveal underlying issues. Finally, discussions among teachers may provide insights and solutions to the problem of school refusal syndrome (Nihon Gakko-hokenkai 1997). ~

Teachers in elementary schools are advised to show sympathy and understanding to the family of students with school refusal syndrome so that they earn the parents’ and the children’ trust. It is important for first- to third-graders to get involved with their classmates. But fourth- to sixth-graders tend to be sensitive to the involvement of their classmates; therefore, teachers may avoid sending a classmate to their homes (Takagaki et al. 1995a:6-8). The regional Centers for Educational Counseling provide services to students with school refusal syndrome, their teachers, and their parents. ~

The Wakayama JTU has opened nine Centers for Education Counseling with 63 counselors. A handbook distributed by the Center advises teachers not to force students with school refusal syndrome to go to school, and not to press them for an explanation. Instead, it suggested that teachers should visit those students once a week, play with them, and tell them to relax at home. The handbook also advises teachers to talk to the parents, cooperate with them, and ask parents to keep a daily journal about their child. According to the handbook, it is important for the students to reintroduce themselves gradually to school, by playing with friends after school, participating in school events, visiting the nurse teacher in the health care room only in the morning or in the afternoon, and attending school once or twice a week. Mutual trust with teachers and classmates help students to feel comfortable about returning to school. Middle school teachers are advised to be patient, and not to pressure the students to return to school. Teachers may spend time with those students by going out and shopping together to develop a bond. Teachers may also help students study and plan (Takagaki et al. 1995b:132-136; 153-165). ~

Parents can assist their children return to school by being accepting and understanding. Morishita, a clinical psychiatrist who consulted more than 300 students with school refusal syndrome and established a high school for them has learned from his practice that children with school refusal syndrome are cured only when parents accept them and say, “You do not have to go to school. You can take a good rest at home.” It generally takes half a year for mothers to fully accept that their children have stopped going to school, and takes three years for fathers (Morishita 2000:84, 95). The Associations of Parents of Students with School Refusal Syndrome provide an opportunity for these parents to learn how to accept their children, and encourage each other to overcome their hardships. ~

Schools for Kids with School Refusal Syndrome

As the number of students with school refusal syndrome has rapidly increased since the 1980s, public “adaptation” classrooms and private “free schools” have been established specifically for them. According to a 1999 survey, there are 779 public “adaptation” classrooms and more than 200 recognized private alternative schools in Japan. In the 2001-2 school year, the number of students who attended public “adaptation” schools was 11,266 (1,968 elementary school students and 9,298 middle school students) (Monbukagakusho- 2002b). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Since 1992, the MOE has allowed the prefectural board of education to count attendance in private “free schools” as regular school attendance. In 1984, parents of students with school refusal syndrome founded the Concerned Society for School Refusal Syndrome, which developed into a nationwide Network for Parents Who Have a Child with School Refusal Syndrome in 1990. The support networks have summer camps, group counseling, and meetings to find the best solution for their children (To-ko-kyohi 1992). The National Association for Home Schooling promotes home schooling for children with school refusal as an alternative to school education. Furthermore, since April 2002 the educational Board of Education in Shiki City in Saitama Prefecture has sent temporary teachers and volunteers with teaching certificates into the homes of children with school refusal syndrome for one to four hours of daily instruction (AS February 15, 2002). In 2005, the MOE plans to provide a weeklong camp for elementary and middle school students with school refusal syndrome so that they can experience group activities (Sankei Shinbun August 13, 2004). ~

Problems Encountered by High-School-Age Kids with School Refusal Syndrome

Students with school refusal syndrome confront problems during the high school admission process because of their chronic absenteeism and poor grades. High schools select applicants based on the test scores on high school entrance exams, and their attendance, grades, conduct, and extracurricular activities. Students with school refusal syndrome by definition have poor attendance and consequently poor grades. The MOE has suggested that the prefectural boards of education consider special treatment for students with school refusal syndrome who are applying to public high school. Some prefectures exempt their poor attendance. For example, beginning in the 1997-8 school year, Kagawa prefecture set up a 5-percent quota for students with school refusal syndrome who can be judged only by the test scores of their entrance examination (AS April 8, 1999). The Shizuoka prefectural board of education set up a similar quota for such students, who take written examinations, compose an essay, and complete an interview without their school reports being taken into consideration (AS September 29, 2000). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Students with the syndrome may attend correspondence schools or evening high schools if they are not ready to return to regular daytime high schools. They may study at home and take high school equivalency examinations. In recent years, many students who had school refusal syndrome attend daytime courses of evening high schools where the students stay in school for shorter amount of time, and the environment is more casual. Some students attend evening middle schools. ~

Since attendance at high school is not compulsory, there are no public facilities specifically for high school students with school refusal syndrome. In fact, there are many young adults, called “hikikomori,” who confine themselves in their homes and isolate themselves from the society.3 Many specialists claim that the number of hikikomori may have reached one million (Morishita 2000:220; Saito- 2003:56). Among the hikikomori, those who have confined themselves in their homes for six months or more, almost 60 percent are 21 years old or older, and one-fourth had been hikikomori for at least five years. Men are 2.7 times more likely than women to be hikikomori, and 41 percent had experienced school refusal syndrome (AS May 9, 2001). Some public health centers operate day care activities for hikikomori. Public services for young adults with psychological and psychiatric problems are needed. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare helps hikikomori to find jobs through the system of registered companies for hikikomori. The MOE plans to offer a program in 2005 to provide social experiences to hikikomori through three months of group camping so that hikikomori can experience work and volunteer activities (AS August 24, 2004). ~

It is important to create a more flexible educational system for elementary and middle school education, in order to avoid labeling students with school refusal syndrome as socially unfit. The government has started to recognize alternative educational institutions such as home schooling and free schools, and to grant eligibility for their graduates to attend high schools. The cooperation of parents, homeroom teachers, nurse teachers, school counselors, and physicians as well as the increasing number of school counselors will help students who have school refusal syndrome to return to school. However, school administrators and teachers also have to find and cure the school-related causes of school refusal syndrome, such as bullies. ~

Sumire Adaptation Classroom

The Kagawa prefectural board of education provides counseling for students with school refusal syndrome and their parents in public counseling centers and youth centers, and runs 17 adaptation classrooms. Most of these classrooms are located in community centers, not in schools. Attendance in the adaptation classroom is counted as school attendance. The students study and play freely with other students with school refusal under the supervision of teachers, and prepare to return to school. Most students with school refusal syndrome stay at home; therefore, attending an adaptation classroom is their first “stepping stone.” [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

There are many more students who stay home, and are not able to come to the adaptation classroom. Homeroom teachers and a nurse teacher hold the primary responsibility for counseling students who have stopped attending elementary school. In middle school, the school counselor collaborates with a homeroom teacher and a nurse teacher to treat these students. Three middle schools in Marugame share one school counselor who has an office in one school, and visits the other middle schools at their request. Homeroom teachers visit the students at home, and talk with their parents. It usually takes some time for parents to admit that their child has school refusal syndrome. Parents tend to blame the school and the teachers, while teachers tend to consider home environment as a cause of school refusal syndrome. In reality, it is often difficult to have good cooperative relations between teachers and parents. ~

The Sumire adaptation classroom has operated in two small rooms in the community hall since 1992. In February 2001, there were three sixth-graders (two boys and one girl), two eighth-graders (one boy and one girl), and two ninth-grade boys. One sixth-grade boy returned to school, but he came back to the adaptation classroom two months later when I visited the class. Two ninth graders had already been accepted by a private high school, and one of them was preparing for the public high school entrance examination in March. One eighth-grade boy had begun coming to the adaptation class for only two days. Most students planned to return to school in April for the 2001-2 school year when new schools and classrooms awaited all students. The sixth-graders would begin middle school in April, and the eighth-graders would have a new homeroom class and a new homeroom teacher. There are always fewer students in the adaptation classroom in April when many students try to fit into a new school environment. One full-time teacher and two teachers’ aides usually supervise the students. The classroom operates from 9:00 to 3:00. The students do whatever they like, playing electric games, ping-pong or cards, reading comics or library books, and talking with teachers. They have a pottery-making workshop once a month. The teachers told me that they used to have a daily study schedule for the students, but that the students stopped coming to the classes because it was too much like the traditional classroom routine. ~

After that, the teachers let the students decide what they wanted to do. Those children who have a hard time complying with strict regulations and schedules are willing to come to this less regimented classroom. Parents and teachers meet once a month, and a school counselor is also occasionally invited for consultation. The adaptation class teacher keeps in touch with homeroom teachers in regular schools, and provides follow-up services for students who return to school. These students are always welcome to visit the adaptation classroom after they return to their regular schools. ~

There were seven students and three teachers in the small main room when I visited the classroom in the morning. Most students arrived around 9:00, though they are allowed to come to class any time they want. There are a large table, one video game station, one computer, one sideboard and a sink in the main room. A table and chairs are in the other room. All students want to play video games, and they take turns using the game station. One student used the computer to write an essay for a collection of students’ compositions. One sixth-grade student brought textbooks and studied with a teacher for about an hour every day. The students mingled, talked, and read comics. Snack time was at 10:00. Then they played around in the classroom again. Around 11:00, most students went out to the baseball field, and played catch or badminton for one hour. They had lunch together in the classroom for one hour. Then they played games and cards until 3:00, when all the students went home. All students were relaxed and comfortable in the classroom, and had good relationships with their teachers. The three teachers were more like their mothers or big sisters, and made sure that the students enjoyed coming to the classroom.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~; Education in Japan website educationinjapan.wordpress.com ; Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), Daily Yomiuri, Jiji Press, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

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