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Japan schools apologize for 'trolley problem' lessons asking students to choose who dies

A school classroom is seen in this unrelated photo. (Getty Images)

IWAKUNI, Yamaguchi -- Local elementary and junior high schools issued apologies after materials relating to the trolley problem, a thought experiment asking whether students would be able to accept causing the death of one person to avoid multiple lives being lost, were distributed during lessons.

Iwakuni Municipal Higashi Elementary and Junior High schools, in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, southwestern Japan, received complaints from parents and guardians that the lessons made them anxious. The principals of both institutions sent written apologies to guardians for not vetting the content of the classes.

According to the city Board of Education's juvenile division, the lessons were taught in May to a total of 311 children; comprising fifth and sixth graders at Higashi Elementary School, as well as second and third year students at Higashi Junior High School. They were carried out during homeroom activity periods, taking 45 minutes at the elementary school and 50 minutes at the junior high.

Each class was administered by the same school counselor, and a printout with details of the trolley problem was distributed.

On the handout, a trolley is shown approaching a fork in the tracks. If it continues on its current course, it will run over five people tied to the track. On the other track there is just one person tied down. Another person is depicted standing next to a track switch lever at the fork.

The printout asks, "If you let the trolley continue on its path, it will traverse the rails with five people lying on them. If you pull the lever, it will switch to the track with one person on it. There are no brakes. Will you pull the lever, or let the trolley continue as-is?" Below are two choices: "Do nothing and five people die," or "Pull the lever and one person dies."

Reportedly the classes were not seeking answers to the trolley problem, and it was said the lessons' aim was to aid in understanding the importance of asking others for help when feeling anxious or concerned by choices.

But in June, parents and guardians reported feeling uneasy about the content of the classes, and sought an explanation from both Higashi Elementary School and the education board. The two schools immediately carried out surveys in which a number of elementary school students complained of feeling anxious.

The board of education reported that the lessons were part of a psychological education program started this year by the prefectural government. Lesson materials and contents provided by the school counselor are supposed to be subject to consultation with the school, which has to confirm their suitability before teaching them. Neither consultation nor confirmation is said to have taken place in this instance.

The principal of Higashi Elementary School acknowledged their checks were not sufficient, saying, "Because it was a lesson by a mental health specialist, we entrusted them to do it, and neglected to confirm the contents."

(Japanese original by Ryoji Koga, Iwakuni Local Bureau)

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