This article was originally published in Kansai Scene under the name of W.F. Tyrman
Once upon a time, teachers were well respected beacons of society, a country’s means of instilling morals, history, skills and innovations into its youth. Then, one day, came some wicked witches and warlocks, not with poisoned apples, but with barbed words instead. Conversations were had and teachers cowed. And so, there happened a play with twenty-five Snow Whites. All the monster parents lived happily ever after. The end.
In the last few years Japan has increasingly grappled with monster parents. These parents repeatedly make selfish and unreasonable demands on teachers. Articles have been printed; the issue discussed on TV and has even been turned into a Fuji TV show, Monster Parents, featuring Ryoko Yonekura. She plays a lawyer parachuted into a school to fend off the eponymous villains. This reflects the reality in some Tokyo wards, such as Minato-ku.
In his book, Professor Yoshihiko Morotomi of Meiji University cites cases of monster parents in action. These include placing recording devices in bags, demanding the child who accidentally injured a parent’s child be suspended from school for as long as it took her child to recover. Parents have been known to insinuate gangster connections, phone teachers and principals relentlessly and actually turn up at their residences. Some demand more homework while others demand less. In one extreme case a parent asked a teacher to force her child to take baths at home.
Some of these examples seem funny, but this has led to extended leave, resignations and even suicide amongst teachers. Natsuko Koide of Saitama Shimbun puts it down to “a growing number of cases where school management refuse to become involved, instead they leave the issue to class teachers who find themselves increasingly unable to cope.”
What has caused this phenomenon? Leo Lewis of the Times puts it down to “a society that has lost all respect for its traditions and decorum.” This may be putting it too strongly. Japan remains a traditional country. We must remember ‘Monster Parents’ are a vocal minority. It may be more to do with the growing pains of a changing nation. Japan is traditionally seen as a top-down conformist society. In breaking from this mould without guidance, the changes and reactions have become scattershot.
Meanwhile Haruki Murakami puts it down to the loss of direction after the cold war and Japan’s economic collapse. Carolyn Stevens of Melbourne University’s Asia Institute says “It’s now OK to criticise because Japanese society is not sort of the rosy, happy environment that it used to be.” The Tokyo political elite are cold and distant. The monster parents view themselves as taxpaying consumers, they cannot confront the Prime Minister personally; just as we cannot ring up the owners of Wal-Mart or Tesco’s. However, teachers are local and accessible making them easy targets.
Like in many countries, schoolism (gakureki-shugi) is extremely important. In most areas this depends on the High School entered and then the university. However, in other areas even the kindergarten entered can become the conveyor belt to Japan’s most prestigious universities. The pressure for academic success and its resulting rise in status for the family may be adding to the monster parent problem. In extreme cases this has led to murder as students or parents crack under the pressure.
This may be why some parents fail to understand that schooling cannot be tailored towards individual needs. They cannot see the need to compromise and put their children first, above all others. This is impossible in a comprehensive education system with thirty-five to forty students per class.
Anyone involved in the education system here will note the differences from other countries. Chisaki Toyama-Bialke in Juvenile Delinquency in Japan states that “Japanese schoolteachers deal with emotional and behavioural problems and this is more fully supported by Japanese parents.” An example of this is the school diary. Students fill in daily reports of what they studied and did outside of class. The teacher reads the diary and makes comments. This forms a constant dialogue between student and teacher; a dialogue not seen between child and parent. In addition, the vast majority of students belong to school clubs run by teachers. The parents “want the school to control the ‘out of school’ life of teenagers,” continues Toyama-Bialke.
Murakami might not be far off. The economic collapse of the 1990s led to social changes in society. Divorce and suicide rates rose steadily in this period. This left a lot of single parents. The law is set up to provide a clean break between divorced couples often leading the mother to bear all the costs of rearing her children, with little or no financial or moral support from the ex-husband.
It can also be argued that many adults are escaping old societal responsibilities; an ultimate revolt against old strictures. From there it is one simple step to the abstention of parental responsibility in favour of giving it to unwitting teachers. Next you have teachers asked to force children into the bathtub.
Without adequately training teachers the government liberalised the education system. Discipline for the sake of harmony has been relaxed to a point which hinders it. Students neither disciplined at home nor at school in the 90s are now the monster parents of today’s delinquent students. In one case in the south of Osaka prefecture a parent, when called in to discuss the misbehaviour of her daughter, not only denounced the teachers but also encouraged her daughter to continue to make their days hell.
Ryoko Yonekura had high hopes Monster Parents would “think of what is good for children.” Instead, bigwigs in Tokyo talk of six-day weeks and harder rote-learning. Their policies are failing and standards are falling as a result. Yes, monster parents need to act more reasonably but a day when children truly come first is a long way off.