A ninth-grader depressed by school discipline hangs himself. A teacher slams a school gate on a student, crushing her skull. Another teacher beats a student to death on a school outing, just for carrying a hair dryer.
Japan's regimented schools produce some of the world's best students, but researchers and educators feel the tough discipline is too often abused. Confucian authoritarianism in the wrong hands, the critics say, has fostered a culture of violence in the schools."I've decided, all by myself, to die. I don't want to be with a teacher who uses violence," said a note left by the 14-year-old who hanged himself last fall in a park in Motegimachi, about 60 miles northeast of Tokyo.
His 27-year-old teacher, whose name was withheld by school authorities, later admitted he had slapped the boy several times in the face as part of "disciplinary measures."
Although corporal punishment is against the law, many teachers say they find it an effective educational tool if it does not result in serious injury. According to Education Ministry reports, some even consider it a sign of a teacher's enthusiasm or concern for the students.
In a nation that prizes conformity and obedience to authority, parents rarely protest even if their children dare to complain.
During the academic year April 1991-March 1992, 855 cases of corporal punishment, or "taibatsu," were reported in grades 1 through 12, the Education Ministry said. Researchers say the cases reported are a small part of the total.
A report provided by the Tokyo metropolitan government gives a rare glimpse of some physical disciplinary measures used by junior high teachers.
The report, with substantial parts blacked out to conceal identities, indicated all but one of the disciplined students suffered injuries ranging from bruises to broken bones.
In July 1991, a teacher punched a 12-year-old in the face and kicked him in the stomach and thighs for reading a classmate's diary, causing a bone fracture around his eye that required hospitalization for a month, the report said.
Two months later, a 15-year-old at another school suffered a broken leg when he was slapped, punched in the face and tripped by a teacher for bringing a cassette player to school.
Typically, children are hit on the head, punched in the face, kicked or beaten with sticks for missing homework deadlines or breaking the rules.
One rule that applies in all public schools requires students to wear dark-colored military-style uniforms. Most schools have more detailed codes that, for example, govern the color of socks and limit hair styles to very short crew cuts for boys and pageboys for girls.
Students can be barred from entering coffee shops or obtaining drivers' licenses. The contents of school bags are restricted: no cassette players, playing cards or hair dryers.
To some, the routine habit of administering slaps to the head or face is the most worrisome aspect of school discipline.
"It reminds me of Japan's wartime military," said Susumu Nakano, a former high school teacher who lectures in education at Chuo University, referring to brutal behavior that was taken for granted in the militaristic period before and during World War II.
"Corporal punishment is a threat that simply forces children to obey," Nakano said. "It can temporarily stop certain actions but has no positive educational effect."
Municipal governments reluctantly began disclosing reports on serious cases of corporal punishment after human rights groups accused schools of trying to cover up the practice.
The teacher who beat the student to death for taking a hair dryer on a school outing was sentenced to three years in prison, but most teachers who injure students receive only reprimands or suspensions.
After the 14-year-old hanged himself in the park, his teacher was given a cut in salary for having used corporal punishment. He took a leave of absence and later resigned.
In Kobe, western Japan, the junior high school teacher who killed a 15-year-old by slamming a quarter-ton gate on her head received a three-year jail sentence for professional negligence. It was suspended.
The school halted its practice of slamming the gates at 8:30 a.m. to teach students a lesson about punctuality.
Of 295 teachers punished for using corporal punishment in 1992, four were suspended and 10 suffered cuts in salary. The others were merely reprimanded.
Critics urge school officials to reconsider traditional ways of enforcing discipline.
"With good relationships and trust, they shouldn't have to use violence to make kids listen," said Norio Seto, a lawyer and child-rights advocate.