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Japan curtails beating, humiliation of students


TOKYO -- When a western Japan junior high class turned in sub-par exams last spring, the teacher decided it was time for electric shock treatment. Literally.

One by one, he had the students come to the front of the room and grasp a metal bar. Each got one volt of electrical current for each point below 100 on the exam.

"I got 70 volts, and my hands were numb for two minutes afterward," one student who got 30 points later told investigators from the Kitakyushu board of education.

The teacher's method was novel, but there was something even more unusual about the incident. Parents publicly complained and forced an investigation that led to a reprimand for the teacher.

Slowly, one incident at a time, that is happening more often.

After decades of passive acceptance, and approval in many cases, small but growing numbers of Japanese parents appear to be deciding they've had enough of one of the darkest and least understood faces of their country's schools.

Educators come here from all over the world to study a school system that produces world-beating math and science scores.

Few know that the system they visit also is one where teachers slug, kick and tie up pupils of all ages and both sexes.

Almost every year, at least one student dies of physical mistreatment by a teacher, though 1992 still has a chance to become the first exception in four years.

In 1991, two autistic students died when a teacher locked them in an unventilated freight container for 40 hours after catching them smoking.

In 1990, a 15-year-old girl died after her skull was crushed when a teacher threw an iron gate shut to enforce the morning starting time.

Spectacular cases like those make a brief splash in the news. But Ministry of Education reports usually play down the practice.

But steadily mounting evidence backs up what Japanese students and parents have long said: that the practice is widespread. And some school authorities go to considerable lengths to see that incidents aren't reported and that teachers aren't punished.

"Reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg," the Ministry of Justice's Civil Liberties Bureau concluded after being asked to look into the growing numbers of parental complaints.

After one widely publicized incident, the school board in Fukuoka, also in western Japan, canvassed the city's faculty about corporal punishment. More than 70 per cent of the teachers said they had struck at least one student or subjected one to physical restraint such as roping or wiring pupils to desks or chairs.

That survey in one medium-sized city turned up more assaults on students than the 1,000 or so the Ministry of Education acknowledges in a typical year for the entire country. Of a typical year's 1,000 reported cases, about 250 or 300 lead to punishments for teachers.

In Kawasaki, an industrial suburb of Tokyo, the school ombudsman investigated last year after a mother claimed teachers "regularly" beat her daughter.

Within weeks, Kawasaki became the first city school district in Japan ever to warn its teachers against corporal punishment. "Corporal punishment injures a child's character and interrupts the functioning of education," the warning said.

Beatings are only one face of the harshness in Japanese education.

Many teachers and principals systematically use public humiliation to pressure students into conformity.

But students, like parents, are getting less and less meek about accepting the punishment.

In Shizuoka, 40 miles southwest of Tokyo, teachers paraded a group of boys in front of an assembly last fall for violating the school's uniform regulations.

That is a commonplace discipline here, but the boys decided they'd had enough. Armed with bamboo fencing swords, two dozen of them surrounded the toughest teacher in school during a gym period, swatting his legs and forcing him to run for help.

The principal sent the boys home, but the next day the tables turned in a way no one in Japan would have predicted a few years ago.

It was the principal, and not the boys, who made a public apology. "I regret the fact that the school may have gone too far in stressing its rules," he said.

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