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A school for Japan's jailbirds

Kiri School gives hope to hundreds blighted by a life of crime

A school for Japan's jailbirds

Picture: Shutterstock correspondent, Tokyo

January 21, 2014

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The students at Kiri School in central Japan may be among the most enthusiastic in the country. Ranging between 17 and 67 years old, they may also be among the most diverse. And they are also perhaps the most unusual, for at Kiri School, every student in a convicted criminal.

The mission of the school, located in Nagano Prefecture, some 170km northwest of Tokyo, is to provide inmates with a chance to obtain the level of education they should, by law, have been given while they were younger. Its pupils come from the nearby Matsumoto Juvenile Prison and others around Japan – black holes where the chances of a future outside of the bars are dim.

Life for a student at Kiri is not easy. What most children are taught over three years, people here try to learn in one. School days are long: the seven class periods are held from 8am until 4:30pm, and after students return to their cells they might study until 10pm. There is no break for summer or winter.

“These are people who have seldom in their lives been shown any love,” says Toshio Sumiya, 66, who has worked here for 35 years. “They have always been written off as ‘bad eggs’ by the people they meet.”

It is usually poverty that has prevented the prisoners from finishing school.

“Most of them — abandoned by their parents, denied the chance even of attending elementary school or junior high — grew up without a single blessing,” he adds. “Some never knew their parents’ faces or names, and for some not even a birth certificate connects them to any family.”

These days, around half the students in the school were born overseas. One young Brazilian man was brought to Japan by his parents, who were working here, but he couldn’t understand any Japanese. He was bullied in grade school and turned to crime. His parents left him behind when they returned to Brazil.

Each year, students are selected from throughout the country and arrive in Matsumoto in March. The school year starts in April, as is typical in Japan.

Sumiya first requires all students to write an essay to ascertain their skill levels.

The Japanese writing system consists of three separate character sets, which are interchangeable to a degree. While children learn two of these early on, education in the full set of more than 2,000 regular-use kanji, or Chinese characters, is not finished until high school, so Sumiya encourages students to write in whatever script they know. But, inevitably, the students aren’t satisfied with this and come asking him to help them with their kanji.

It is this zeal which strikes Sumiya most deeply. The students continually express their drive toward study and hard work, which shows how important this is to them. “Everyone’s heart is set on the thought, ‘I want to study. I want to learn to read and write.’”

In addition to classroom work, the students get what is sometimes their first experience of responsibility and honest work. And then there are the field trips. When the day for an excursion comes, Sumiya says: “Today, we are bringing neither handcuffs nor ropes. The only weapon we are taking along is trust.”

The destination on the second field trip is Kiri’s mother school, Asahimachi Junior High. Students and their guardians from the main school offer a warm welcome.

“It is moving to them to have that opportunity and to get a glimpse of a new world,” says Sumiya. With a repeat offending rate of close to zero percent, the new world is inspiring.

“It is moving for them to realize how much they have changed since the year before,” he continues. “One student told me, ‘What is moving does not lie’. Something as small as realizing, ‘I was able to board a train without making a mistake,’ can be a source of confidence and the power to live. And it leads to hope that the next day might be the start of a new life.”

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