With the number of people unable to receive a proper compulsory education due to bullying or illness on the rise, the education ministry is promoting opening the doors of junior high schools to night classes -- which previously only accepted students who couldn't finish their studies due to the war or poverty -- for those who would like to give junior high another try.
"Do you know about distilling water?" asks instructor Han Il-mu in mid-October as he teaches a night class on "lifestyle" at Choei Junior High School in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture. He's teaching about water distillation as a method to secure a supply of drinking water during an emergency. "Mr. Nishimura, you like distilled beverages, don't you?" In a laugh-filled classroom, Han's explanation expands even to the difference between distilled spirits and brewed liquor.
The man who smiled and nodded at the joke is 54-year-old Fumihiro Nishimura of Higashiosaka who enrolled in April 2016. Night classes at Choei are held five times a week, and each night the students take four 45-minute courses. Currently, there are 105 students attending, and while 90 percent of the students are from places like China and Vietnam, a total of four students including Nishimura are taking on the junior high school curriculum for the second time.
When Nishimura was in his second year of junior high, disagreements with his classmates led him to be unable to attend school. He graduated without any change in the situation, but was unable to move on to high school. He thought about taking the University Entrance Qualification Examination, which is equivalent to a high school diploma, but there were too many subjects and he gave up. He was unable to keep long-term employment to cover daily costs, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 25.
"When I was in junior high school, there was no word for being unable to go to school, and they called it 'school phobia,'" recalled Nishimura. "Thinking about it now, I had probably started feeling the effects of my bipolar disorder back then."
Nishimura had known about the existence of night schools from popular media, including renowned director Yoji Yamada's film "Gakko" (A Class to Remember), but knew that they did not accept students like him, who had technically already graduated. When he found out through a newspaper that the conditions had changed, he returned to attending junior high school after roughly 40 years. Even now, his health is not the best, and he spends most of his days in bed at home, where he lives alone.
Even then, he said, "I want to go to class. I want to remember everything I'm taught." This gives him the motivation to get up and keep going to school. "Even if I'm feeling depressed, when I come here, I feel the passion of my classmates, which lifts me up. This is my utopia."
Higashiosaka resident Noriko Ono, 43, who enrolled this April, also became unable to attend classes when she was in the higher grades of elementary school due to insidious bullying. Other students would whisper insults, her belongings were stolen ... School became a terrifying place, and she stopped attending when she was in the sixth grade.
"My mother was busy with work, so I couldn't tell her what was happening, and I had trouble accepting that I had been the victim of bullying," she said. "I also remember being embarrassed."
Even when it became time to go to junior high school, there was no change in her condition, and she spent over 10 years unable to leave her home. Then, when she was 24 years old, she was hospitalized for about two weeks for Hashimoto's disease, a type of autoimmune disease that attacks the functionality of the thyroid gland. Because being hospitalized had exposed her to the outside world, she also discovered new information: The person who had once bullied her was married and had a child. Looking at her own situation, her spirits sank.
Ono consulted with a counselor and began communicating with people who shared the same experiences. Slowly reintegrating into society, she decided to attend the night school suggested to her by an acquaintance.
She can't understand mathematic calculations or write even simple Chinese characters, so there are times when she has trouble following the class. Even then, she is positive. "I am enjoying the experiences that I missed out on," Ono said. "Back then, people were hateful and scary and there was nothing I could do about it. But at this school, there are many people with diverse backgrounds from a variety of countries, and I can be truly honest about myself and my past of being unable to attend school and being continuously bullied. Through getting to know the teacher and my classmates, I became able to feel thankful toward other people."
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology sent notices to boards of education nationwide in July 2015 to begin accepting students who had graduated from junior high school on paper but had really been unable to attend classes if they wished to enroll in a junior high night school.
The decision came considering the growing number of students who become unable to complete their education. According to an education ministry survey carried out during the 2016 fiscal year, a total of 134,398 elementary and junior high school students stopped going to school. In other words, for every 1,000 students, 13.5 of them were not able to receive a proper education, the highest ratio since the survey began being conducted in fiscal 1998. To remedy this, the ministry is working to open at least one public school offering junior high school night classes in every prefecture. There are also roughly 300 autonomous schools run by volunteers nationwide, with some 7,400 attendees.