TOKYO >> Wataru Yoshida had had enough. He wasn’t going back to school.
He disliked his teachers, chafed against the rules and was bored by his classes. So in the middle of 2020, as Japan’s schools reopened after pandemic closings, Wataru decided to stay home and play video games.
“He just declared, ‘I ’m getting nothing from school,’” said his mother, Kae Yoshida.
Now, after more than a year out of the classroom, Wataru, 16, has returned to school, though not a normal one. He and about two dozen teenagers like him are part of the inaugural class of Japan’s first esports high school, a private institution in Tokyo that opened in 2022.
The academy, which mixes traditional class work with hours of intensive video game training, was founded with the intention of feeding the growing global demand for professional gamers. But educators believe they have stumbled onto something more valuable: a model for getting students like Wataru back in school.
“School refusal” — chronic absenteeism often linked to anxiety or bullying — has been a preoccupation in Japan since the early 1990s, when educators first noticed that more than 1% of elementary and middle school students had effectively dropped out. The number has since more than doubled.
Japanese schools can feel like hostile environments for children who don’t fit in. Pressure to conform — from teachers and peers alike — is high.
As they struggle to address school refusal, educators have experimented with different models. In December, Tokyo announced that it would open a school in the metaverse.
Frustrated parents with means have turned to private schools, including so-called free schools that emphasize socialization and encourage children to create their own course of study. The E-Sports High School students, however, mostly found their own way to the school.
For them it seemed like a potential haven, but for their parents it was a last resort.
At a meeting in February 2022, school staff explained that the school’s lesson plans met national educational standards, and administrators addressed concerns such as video game addiction and career prospects for professional gamers.
At the start of the Japanese school year in April, 22 boys accompanied by family gathered for an entrance ceremony at the school. It is a sleek pod — half spaceship, half motherboard, with glass floors and a ceiling circuited with green neon tubes — on the eighth floor of a building in the bustling Shibuya district.
The ceremony reassured both students and parents. A former minister of education sent a congratulatory telegram on the school’s opening. The principal — in the form of a glitchy virtual avatar — delivered a speech from a giant screen, then led students in a programming exercise.
That mix would continue throughout the school year. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, pros instructed students on competition strategies for popular games such as Fortnite and Valorant. On one such day, students gathered around a whiteboard for a nearly scientific lecture about the relative merits of Street Fighter characters.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students studied core subjects including math, biology and English. Unlike normal Japanese schools, classes started later, at 10, and there were no uniforms.
Another difference: tardiness.
One day early in the school year, only two boys showed up for the start of first period, a lecture about information technology. There were four teachers.
As pupils straggled in, the teachers offered a cheery hello or simply ignored them. By third period — biology — five students had arrived. Only two stayed through the day’s last class, English.
The teachers were happy they came at all.
“Kids who didn’t come to school in the first place are allergic to being forced,” said Akira Saito, the school’s principal, who had spent years teaching troubled students in Japanese public schools.
The academy’s philosophy was to draw them in with the games and then show them that “it’s really fun to come to school, it’s really useful for your future,” he said.
In truth, few of the students will become pro gamers. The academy’s teachers encourage students to seek other paths into the industry — programming or design, for example.
Wataru, however, is focused on making it big. By midsemester he still wasn’t getting to class much, but overall he was thriving. He was less reserved, more eager to goof off with his new friends.
In November, after months of hard practice, Wataru and a team of classmates made it through the first round of a national competition for League of Legends, a fantasy-themed game of capture the flag that has become one of the world’s most popular esports formats.
The tournament was remote, but on the day of the second round, the team showed up to campus early, except one member had overslept and would play from home.
They won their first game. Then a group of older players smashed them.
Defeated, the team’s members sat quietly for a time, the light from the monitors washing over their disappointed faces.
“I should probably go home,” Wataru said.
He turned back to his monitor instead. He was part of a team. And he was getting better at that, too.
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