A Japanese Psychiatrist’s Takes on the Trials of Life

Quiet Resistance: A Psychological Approach to Understanding Absenteeism from School in Japan

Education Society

A new report offers fresh insights into the issue of non-attendance at Japanese junior high schools.

A Broader Picture of the Problem

School non-attendance has long been a major social issue in Japan. The results of a 2018 survey by the Nippon Foundation provide important hints for considering the problem.

Unlike the surveys previously implemented by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), which operated through local boards of education to gather replies from schools, this Nippon Foundation survey was conducted online and posed questions directly to children—including those attending school regularly. This revealed a broader picture by going beyond those who fit MEXT’s definition of absenteeism, namely, children who stay home from school for 30 or more days in a year. It also covered what I might describe as a reserve corps for absenteeism: children who have not reached the threshold of 30 days’ absence, who come to school but study separately from their classmates, or who come to class but do different work or feel a strong aversion to participation, along with those whose normal attendance masks an internal aversion to school. The expanded scope found 330,000 affected children, or more than three times as many as under the narrow MEXT definition, clearly demonstrating the problem is more serious than previously thought. 

The reasons that students cited for not wanting to go to junior high school illustrate the true state of their complex feelings, which could not be found in earlier statistics. Here, I will focus on analyzing the answers to examine the psychological state of today’s junior high school students.

Five Categories of Reasons for Non-Attendance

Multifarious reasons were provided for not wanting to go to junior high, but I have grouped them into the following five categories.

  1. Repressed feelings, as seen in answers like “I can’t get up in the morning,” “It makes me tired,” “When I try to go, I feel sick,” and “Even I myself don’t really know.” Although there is no conscious feeling of not wishing to go to school, the end result is an inability to attend.
  2. Problems with others, evident from such responses as “I don’t get on with other students/my teacher[s],” “I can’t rely on my teacher[s],” and “I don’t feel comfortable at school.” Although bullying is the core issue here, the category includes less clearly defined feelings of unease.
  3. Problems with schoolwork. Among the comments in this category are, “I don’t understand my classes,” “I can’t get good marks like in elementary school,” and “I don’t want to take tests.”
  4. Existential issues like “I don’t understand why I should go to school,” and “Compared with elementary school, it’s boring.” Students may find junior high boring because they cannot accept that it is meaningful.
  5. Other specific problems related to the school, such as “I hate the school rules,” or “Club activities are too tough.” Students’ responses vary greatly depending on the sorts of rules their school imposes and the intensity and duration of their club’s activities (such as practicing sports).

Junior High School Students’ Mental State

From these groupings, it is possible to discern the following tendencies.

Among all the replying students, including those attending school regularly, the most common answers were ones indicating repressed feelings, the first category above. This is a useful indication of junior high school students’ mental state. In psychological terms, repression means to hold down thoughts so that they do not rise to the conscious level. In this case, the thought is “I don’t want to go to school.” As it fails to reach the conscious mind, it is liable to be expressed physically instead in a mechanism known as somatization. This leads to inability to get up in the morning and feelings of sickness or fatigue associated with attending school.

Repression occurs when children have powerful conscious feelings that they “should” go to school and “should not” think negative thoughts about attending. This attitude has likely come to the fore because they have not been allowed to say “no” from an early age; parents and schoolteachers have made them passively follow instructions. 

Children who have not attended school for an extended period mainly gave their reasons as problems with others or with schoolwork, the second and third categories above. These have long been viewed as major causes of absenteeism. For children in the early stages of adolescence, how they are perceived by people around them is of the highest importance. It is not surprising that many children identify relationships with others as a reason for non-attendance. It is a problem related to the growth process that is difficult to avoid. 

Among those who go to school and attend classes normally along with their schoolmates while masking an internal desire not to go to school, many of the responses fall into the fourth category, existential issues. Questioning of the meaning or inherent interest of junior high school is common among children who reach mental maturity early and are highly introspective. Many others will consider the same topic later: in high school, university, or when they start working.

These children, who doubt the meaning of what they are doing, are nonetheless able to perform their expected role as students who attend school and participate in classes. And since they are skilled at setting their internal feelings aside and coping with the demands of student life, they are relatively unlikely to cite the final set of reasons, namely, specific problems related to their schools.

Subconscious Dissent

To date, measures tackling long-term absenteeism have focused heavily on support dealing with bullying and poor academic performance. It goes without saying that these will continue to be crucial. However, analysis of the recent report illustrates the psychological repression among students, which has received little attention.

Children start forming their identity when they first learn to say “No!” during their “terrible twos.” As their sense of self awakes, they refuse to passively follow parental instructions. Parents and educators must properly appreciate this sort of defiance as a sign of the emergence of selfhood. This is the start of the process by which children learn to express their own will.

Nowadays, though, zeal for early education is causing parents to fill their children’s days with scheduled classes and other learning activities during this delicate stage of their self-development. This can make their budding sense of self wither, turning them into obedient but spiritless youngsters. Unable to express themselves through outright rebellion, today’s children seem to be tending toward non-attendance at school as a subconscious form of resistance. In their repressed state, they cannot hear the voices of their hearts.

The trend to passivity undoubtedly derives initially from the home and the education industry before children ever get to school. I believe that we must think again about how to raise children so they can develop naturally, and that all adults should individually reconsider their values, which have inclined toward excessive management and control.

(Banner and Illustration by Mica Okada)

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