Coronavirus is straw that breaks the back of boarding school with shrinking enrollment numbers.

Located in the town of Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Jiyugaoka High School was founded in 1983. All students at the private all-boys school live in the on-campus dormitory, and while that’s a very different lifestyle from that of most Japanese teens, advocates say it promotes a wholesome environment, fosters teamwork and excellent communication skills, and builds comradery.

▼ Jiyugaoka High School

However, Jiyugaoka’s enrollment numbers have been in a steady decline for the last several years. Japan’s falling birth rate is a factor, and another is the increasing number of online learning options, which can substitute for boarding school for those living in places without educationally attractive schools within commuting distance. The coronavirus pandemic starting right at the time the school does recruiting tours didn’t help either, and when the current academic year started in April, Jiyugaoka welcomed just 38 new freshmen.

Now, in an anime series this would be the part where a group of plucky students hatches a brilliant plan to grab all of Japan’s attention and show off just how great Jiyugaoka is, maybe by forming a boy band or winning a national sports championship. Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where reality is something very different, and instead Jiyugaoka has announced that the school will be permanently closing when the academic year ends in March.

With high school in Japan lasting three years, the third-year students will get to graduate from Jiyugaoka, but what will happen to Jiyugaoka’s current first and second-year students? All 84 of them will have to transfer to Aoyama High School, another boarding school operated by the same organization as Jiyugaoka. So where’s Aoyama High? In Tsu, a city in Mie Prefecture, meaning the Jiyugaoka boys are going to have to move 208 kilometers (129 miles) away.

▼ From Jiyugaoka’s campus, it’s a three-hour drive east to get to Aoyama High School.

Jiyugaoka first began discussing the possibility of the school closing and the students having to transfer back in June. Though it initially hoped things wouldn’t come to that, the latest drop in incoming freshmen makes continuing to run Jiyugaoka, which requires staffing and maintenance costs not just for the school but for the dorm as well, a financial impossibility. “We will continue diligently supporting the students until their graduation,” said Riki Aoda, the head of Jiyugaoka/Aoyama operator Nissei Gakuen, “and we hope that they will do their best in their new environment.”

With high school not being part of compulsory education in Japan, it’s no doubt a relief to the parents that their sons are at least being automatically accepted into a new institution, and with Jiyugaoka being a boarding school, they’re probably already somewhat accustomed to a certain amount of distance between each other. Still, 200 kilometers is a big addition to that distance. It’s also a major uprooting for the boys themselves, though it’s likely at least a few are happy about the fact that Aoyama, the school they’re transferring into, is co-ed.

Sources: Livedoor News/Kyodo, Nihon Keizai Shimbun/Kyodo
Top image: Pakutaso
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