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Truancy cases hit record high in fiscal 2017: gov't survey

In this file photo taken on Feb. 17, 2018, education ministry official Tomohiro Tsubota speaks about the government's policy toward truancy at a symposium in Tsu, Mie Prefecture. (Mainichi/Shintaro Iguchi)

TOKYO -- The number of students who refused to attend elementary, junior high and high schools in the country for at least 30 days a year hit a record high of 193,674 in fiscal 2017, up 6.3 percent from the previous year, a survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has found.

The survey, released on Oct. 25, also found that the number of children attending alternative schools such as "free schools" operated by private organizations is on the rise.

According to the study, the number of students refusing to attend classes stood at 35,032 at elementary schools, 108,999 at junior high schools and 49,643 at high schools in fiscal 2017. Of them, a little under 50 percent were absent from classes for at least 90 days, or about half of the total school days of the year.

In 1992, the education ministry issued a notice that attendance at facilities outside of schools can be counted as "regular presence" by principals if certain requirements are met -- such as the parents of students refusing to go to school are in close cooperation with schools and students receive counseling and guidance at those alternative facilities.

As the number of cases of schoolyard bullying subsequently grew, so did the number of students declining to attend classes. Some of those students turned to free schools and other private facilities that began to pop up around that time. As a result, the number of students whose attendance at alternative schools is counted as attendance at regular schools shot up over the years, from 7,424 in fiscal 1992 to 20,346 in fiscal 2017.

While the education ministry's 1992 notice stipulated that students' attendance at alternative schools must be premised on their eventual return to regular schools as one of the conditions for certifying the out-of-school attendance, critics said such preconditions could drive children into a corner. In response, the ministry mapped out basic guidelines for securing educational opportunities in March 2017, abandoning the previous policy and positively approving alternative schools as venues for learning in a diverse environment.

In the Chiba Prefecture city of Narashino, east of Tokyo, about 20 children of elementary and junior high school age attend Free School Nemo, a facility where they spend time reading, studying and playing games, among other activities. Most of them have their attendance at the facility recognized as regular school turnout, and the school does not urge children to go back to their original school against their will.

Umi Maekita, head of the nonprofit organization Nemonet, which operates the free school, said, "The increasing number of cases where attendance at alternative schools is counted as regular presence is proof that public awareness about free schools is growing." However, Maekita points out that in some cases attendance at free schools is treated differently from that at regular schools in the students' academic reports, leading them to be given unfair treatment when they try to access higher education.

Shiko Ishii, editor in chief of "Futoko Shimbun" (Truancy newspaper), who himself has experience refusing to attend school, said, "The problem is that children who want to distance themselves from school are urged to go back to school, which hurts them as a result. As free schools are said to charge 33,000 yen in monthly fees according to a survey by the education ministry, public assistance is necessary."

(Japanese original by Takuya Izawa and Kim Sooryeon, City News Department)

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