Totsuka Yacht School case illuminates the problem of reform schools: “Lord of the Flies” institutionalized?


Reform school deaths highlight line between humility and violence


An 18-year-old girl jumped to her death from the roof of her dormitory at Totsuka Yacht School in Mihama, Aichi Prefecture on Oct. 19. School founder and principal Hiroshi Totsuka explained that it had been an “impulsive action” that the school had no way of preventing.
Totsuka Yacht School was founded as a reform school for problematic students. According to the headmaster’s own “brain stem theory,” the school’s educational method is effective for a wide range of problems such as school phobia, domestic violence and social withdrawal.
However, two students at the school died and two went missing between 1980 and 1982, after undergoing rigorous yacht training that included corporal punishment. Totsuka and others at the school just finished their prison sentences in 2006 for injury resulting in death
Another student committed suicide in October 2006, making the latest incident the second since the school reopened that year. The circumstances surrounding both cases have remained unclear and are not expected to be brought out into the open.
The latest death reminded me of two other incidents that made headlines in recent years.
One of the cases took place in Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture, in April 2006. A 26-year-old man died from post-traumatic shock at Ai Mental School, a private institution providing “support” for youth suffering from social withdrawal. The victim had been abducted from his home by “supporters,” assaulted, and held in confinement at the facility. The school supervisor and staff were arrested on suspicion of confinement resulting in death.
The other incident took place at a public institution: four staff members at Hiroshima Juvenile Training School were arrested on June 9, 2009 for assaulting facility residents. I was most shocked by the Aug. 11 arrest of lead officer Tadashi Mukai in connection with the incident.
Mukai had received high acclaim for his implementation of reform education that took developmental disabilities into consideration. His educational program incorporating the fruits of developmental disability research in the West was dubbed the Uji method, and is said to have achieved readmission rates of zero at Uji and Hiroshima juvenile training schools, according to Yuka Shinagawa’s book, “Kokoro kara gomennasai e (To saying sorry from the bottom of my heart). Moreover, from what I’d heard from others, I was under the impression that Mukai was a gentle and sincere character.
According to the indictment, however, Mukai is accused of goading a 16-year-old boy to write a suicide note as he choked him with a bed sheet, and shoving a bag filled with toxic gas into the boy’s face when he declined, telling him “you can die if you inhale this.” If this actually happened, it is without a doubt an unacceptable act of abuse, especially monstrous coming from an adult whose role is to lead youth on the right path.
The theoretical bases for the “training” at both Totsuka Yacht School and Ai Mental School are comprised of homespun empiricism lacking in academic verification. But as a psychiatrist, I felt there was much to learn from Mukai’s theory, which was built on the accurate identification of unique cognitive impairments among those with developmental disabilities.
It was the fact that such violence took place despite the validity of the perpetrator’s theory and position that came as such a blow to me.
Mukai is denying the allegations that have been brought against him, and I’d like to believe him. But at the same time, I can’t dismiss the possibility that, like the suicides at Totsuka Yacht School, some kind of violence was a factor. And the reason is because all these incidents originate in a structural problem.
In 1971, 20 healthy students were recruited to participate in a psychological experiment at Stanford University. The students were divided at random into prisoners and prison guards, roles which they were then instructed to fill.
Students playing prisoners were strip-searched, dressed in prison uniforms, and detained in makeshift prison cells created in the university laboratory. They were always called by their identification numbers, and their sleep, meals, and bathroom privileges were strictly controlled. Those who caused any trouble were penalized. Meanwhile, students in the role of prison guards were given guard uniforms and batons, and took turns keeping watch over the prisoners.
Two days after the experiment was begun, the “prisoners” started to act subserviently, blindly following the instructions of the “prison guards,” while the “guards” became authoritarian, their behavior turning brutal. They were now abusive, waking the “prisoners” up in the middle of the night and taking roll call for no reason at all.
The experiment was brought to a halt after just six days, and experiments of the kind have been prohibited since then. This is the gist of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.
So what do we take away from it?
That there is always the potential for relationships of asymmetrical power to lead to violence. That such a situation can result regardless of character, intention, or theoretical legitimacy. Such violence takes place every day in schools, workplaces and homes.
To lead or to guide others can sometimes entail giving orders or enforcing compliance. Humility is an indispensible quality of those who take that role, placing one’s actions under public scrutiny if necessary and at times accepting criticism from third-parties. It is a humility that keeps one’s potential violence in check. Unless we recognize the importance of such humility, we are bound to repeat the same tragedies. (By Tamaki Saito, psychiatrist)
(Mainichi Japan) November 23, 2009


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