On Being Bullied in Japan

scapegoats

I have been overwhelmed by the sweetness of Japanese kids. One student, seeing me without an umbrella, ran backward through the rain to walk with me under hers. Another classroom, after a lesson on how Christmas was different in America, pitched in to buy me a new pair of work shoes (mine had become quite ratty) as a holiday gift.

It was only two months before I was leaving Japan when I saw, firsthand, otherwise sweet kids turn into stomach-churning brutes, reveling in the hilarity of harassing a fellow student. The target, they had decided, was not intelligent, and so during group work they would speak to him in that slurred, tongue-heavy way used to mock kids with Down’s Syndrome.

Not just one or two kids, five of them. The victim would try to work through the conversation anyway, but the kids were relentless. When he finally walked away, another kid – apparently angry at this kid’s social weakness – pushed him into a wall and wouldn’t let him move. About 3-4 boys were actively bullying him, while 5-7 stood laughing and cracking jokes. Half of the class was participating in the activity and the rest were observing with mixed reactions.

I regret that I did nothing more to stop this behavior than stopping the activity and making kids return to their seats. The Japanese teacher separated two of the bullies, but they still used their slurry speech and the angry student continued his angry glares.

I was racked with guilt and concern. The Japanese teacher said if she intervenes, the bullied student “gets angry,” because the teacher is acknowledging that he is different. She tries to give him positive feedback, but that backfires, too – the kids see him as a teacher’s pet. I couldn’t do group activities in that class if it meant the kid was going to suffer through abuse.

I designed a lesson plan based on understanding an English phrase I coined: “Kindness is bravery, cruelty is cowardly.” I would explain this “famous English expression” and indirectly discuss why bullying is ugly and why people should intervene when they see it. The teacher was hesitant, telling me the problem would be dealt with in the next class.

A week later, I had the phrase ready. When the kids started bullying the student, the Japanese teacher stopped the class and shouted in Japanese. I can usually understand about 40% of these conversations, so here is my best approximation: “You are being disruptive, and you are making everyone in the room anxious. Your friends are laughing, so maybe you think your behavior is interesting, but most of us are troubled by it. If you cared about your classmates you would stop acting in this way. It is rude to your classmates, and it is rude to Eriku-sensei. He told me he is uncomfortable with your behavior.”

By coincidence, as she was shouting, the principal of the school walked by. Hearing the yelling, he stopped in the doorway with his arms folded as the bully stared at his shoes. Tense silence filled the room for two minutes. Then the Japanese teacher spoke soothingly to the student – I could understand less of this. The principal left without a word, though his presence and condemnation was clear. The student apologized to the classroom and to me, specifically – but not the victim of the bullying. In her speech, she hadn’t singled him out, just directed the bully to notice the reaction of his classmates.

Bullying in Japan
Of the 70,000 cases of bullying in Japan, legal affairs bureaus made cases out of a record 3,988 acts of bullying in 2012. The national police agency fully investigated 260 cases of school bullying that year, more than twice the number in 2011, which was the highest in 25 years. The report said 511 students were arrested or taken into custody for bullying, more than twice the 219 in 2011 (For a fair comparison, however, the United States had 2.7 million cases of bullying among 50 million children, while Japan has about 16 million children in the school system).

Some examples are stomach-churning. One student was, over months, taunted, then beaten, then forced to shoplift items for the bullies, and eventually forced to eat dead bees. That student sparked a recent national outcry on bullying when he committed suicide at the age of 13. Teachers at the school were aware of the problem, but had only responded with a verbal warning.

One student came to class to find his desk had been transformed into a memorial, with a wreath and a picture of him in the center, incense lit and a condolence card filled with mocking messages from students and some teachers, including his 57-year-old homeroom teacher who was aware the student hadn’t died.

In Japan, bullying is called ijime, and it has some distinctive differences from Western bullying in that it is rooted in psychological cruelty which may or may not be attached to violence. Some 80% of bullying among school students in Japan qualifies as “collective” violence, meaning entire classrooms vs a single victim, and 90% of the cases are considered ongoing, lasting more than a week.

School Response
Teachers often don’t have the training – or the time – to spend on educating the perpetrators and victims of bullying. A Mainichi Shimbun survey found that 70 percent of teachers would like to do more to prevent bullying but simply don’t have time, being responsible for covering smaller staff sizes, more surveys and paperwork, class prep and other job-related stresses.

Teachers are wary of losing control of a classroom. The promotion mechanism to principal evaluates this skill, so teachers are hesitant to report bullying. While they may not be cynically ignoring the problem, I think this encourages teachers to build up a defense of the behavior: That it is “all in good fun.” When teachers aren’t skilled at managing a class, this is an easier default position than intervening in a class where respect is already at a minimum. So they go along with the joke.

Author Fujiwara Tomomi writes,

“When a homeroom teacher cannot be the pivot of the class, the atmosphere of the class becomes permanently unstable. Such a class is in need of a clown. The model to follow can be found in variety-shows in television, which revolve around a clown – the bullied – who is constantly laughed at each time s/he screams at being poked and pushed. The class follows the same power dynamics. To ‘read the vibes’ means to grasp instantaneously the role to be played by each individual, to select a victim, and to direct the whole scene. The skill to operate ‘vibes’ can be regarded as a ‘petit-fascism’ in contemporary society. Some teachers have fallen into using this technique as it is an easy way to manage a class. Thus bullying has become a method.”

The structure of education in Japan – with its group emphasis, large classrooms, and uniformity – fosters a culture of beating down outlying members. Researcher Takashi Naito calls Japan’s schools “untouchable communities” of students:

“In an environment where students are forced to spend almost all their time together, they live under their own set of rules that aren’t always acceptable in society,” he says. “Students are forced to follow the pack, to think the way everyone else is thinking.”

Students won’t defend a victim, and may join in to keep attention away from themselves. Students follow the consensus and if the consensus is “say nothing” then kids either become reluctant bystanders or an amused audience. “Audiences” and “Bystanders” are the social witnesses that make the victim feel isolated and alone. They amplify the demeaning nature of the attacks, even bystanders who don’t join in.

Students are good at hiding bullying, even as victims. I often see students alone at their desk during pair work activities. I assumed the students just weren’t interested in participating. I never considered they weren’t being allowed to take part – and they would never have said so.

Many victims don’t even know they are being bullied. A 1996 MEXT survey found that this was a common problem among students as well: 60% of students (primary to Junior High) had difficulties discerning whether a joke was intended to be enjoyed by everybody, or implicitly putting somebody down, or the more extreme idea of dehumanizing a student altogether.

“Only four behavioral items were identified as “bullying” by more than 75% of the respondents: Other class members have not spoken with him/her this week, even if he/she greeted them (91.1%); writing ‘Drop dead,’ ‘Idiot’ or ‘Get out’ on a note to him/her” (89.7%); shouting words such as “germ,” “eczema,” and so on at him/her (83.0%); stripping him/her of clothes or molesting him/her (75.9%). In contrast, only 5% of the students regarded “arguments that turned into a fistfight” as “bullying.” – Bullying and Ijime in Japanese Schools: A Sociocultural Perspective (pdf)

The Trouble with Homeroom
Some well intentioned teachers worry that identifying a situation as “bullying” can harm the victim’s ability to “adjust” to being a victim through pretending it’s all in good fun. A teacher who tells a student “No, the kids aren’t laughing with you, they’re laughing AT you” undermines a crucial defense mechanism of denial, a denial that also maintains harmony in the classroom. If everyone assumes that everyone is OK with the joke, nobody feels uncomfortable.

Typically, behavioral problems are dealt with through a group consensus in the homeroom. If a student acts out, there’s a class discussion during homeroom with the student present to talk about solving the problem. I once saw this happen after a student stole a wallet from another kid. From my experience, that got solved by getting the kids to sit around looking like terrified deer. The point is to reinforce the social cost of poor behavior, because everyone has to sit around awkwardly discussing the ramifications of your stupidity, even if it means “Our class spent time discussing your arson attempt instead of studying for English.”

This keeps kids accountable for their actions. It usually works, with students being spoken to in a way that is part condemnation and part earnest effort to help them solve the “problem” at the root of the behavior. This leads to the types of kids who run back in the rain to offer a wet stranger their umbrella.

But with bullying, submission to the authority of the group actually reinforces the ostracism of the victim. The group is the problem, and the group solves the problem. The “face-saving” solution – in which bullies explain that they are just making jokes, that they didn’t mean harm – is presented to the class in a way that inclines the class to believing the problem has been resolved.

It is easier to approach that solution than to have a more difficult conversation about bullying, especially when the victim is in the room, and especially when most of the kids are complicit as bystanders or audience members. The point of these interventions is to pave over problems by restoring group harmony – because restoring the appearance of harmony is considered just as valuable as solving the actual problem.

This starts in preschool, where children who seem to be a bit cranky are often made to feel different from the happy ones. A preschool teacher will ignore a sad child, hoping that the indirect pressure of the group will encourage him to get over it and come back to play. A perfect example of this comes from an education researcher observing a loner child avoiding activities in a Japanese preschool:

“….the teacher encouraged the children to ostracize him by pointing him out as ‘strange’ and ‘peculiar’ (okashii), words applied to any child who cries or looks unhappy at kindergarten. ‘Fancy not wanting to come to kindergarten’, she had said at the beginning, ‘what a funny boy.'”

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Scapegoating
Bullied kids can become scapegoats. This makes everyone feel better about their role, and is a natural part of the “1 percent guilty is half guilty” culture of Japan. The kid being bullied might not be too sharp, or may have awkward social mannerisms.

In some cases, being the victim of bullying can be enough to make other kids resent you. In one case, a student with 40 cigarette burns on his arm was expelled from school for showing students the burns in a way that caused them “anxiety.” One school asked the parents of a bullied victim if they could announce their son’s suicide as an “accident” rather than inform the students of the outcome of their harassment campaign.

One student recruited a private detective who provided cameras that secretly recorded his classmates. The student’s camera – hidden in his pencil case – also caught a teacher joining in on the bullying. When parents presented the video to the school’s principal, the principal asked the parents of the bullies to contribute to moving costs for the family of the victim. The family relocated, the teacher kept her job, and “harmony,” we presume, was maintained at the expense of any lingering sense of human decency.

This happens because a school’s reputation is based on student ability and behavior. If a school comes out with stories of bullying, it may attract fewer students the following year. So there is an incentive in keeping bullying problems secret, though that always means more backlash than handling things competently. But that type of transparency is rare in Japan.

Meanwhile, high school kids interviewed about bullying see it as a necessary tool for forcing students into adapting to social norms. A social researcher, Tamaki Mino, interviewed Japanese high school students about bullying. Here’s one exchange:

Akiko: We tried to talk to the person being isolated when our teacher told us to do so. But she didn’t really respond to us. If she could be a bit more cooperative, like try to join in or talk to us, then I think things can get better.
Tamaki: You mean, she won’t be bullied if she changes her attitude?
Akiko: Yes, because that’s why she is being rejected…. actually it’s like she is rejecting being with us. If she wants to be a part, she’s got to change herself.

In other words, the group assumes that bullying is happening because a student is reluctant to participate with the group, making the group feel isolated. When the victim changes herself to become “with us,” the bullying will be terminated as a reward for good group behavior. The quiet students may be uncomfortable, but the lines between bullying and teaching social lessons often starts out blurry.

Akiko: Everyone thinks that it’s better to follow others rather than stand alone.

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54 Responses to On Being Bullied in Japan

  1. Wow! What a post! I see this dynamic playing out everyday, but had not done any research into the matter. I had discerned that it was part of the system and thus tolerated though. That was easy. I’d never heard that 1% percent guilty thing before. I don’t even think I understand what it
    means. Anyway, I’m going to holler at you momentarily offline. Great post as usual!

    • owwls says:

      Thanks! The 1% guilty thing is the idea that nobody is ever fully to blame – that responsibility for something is always distributed among every party involved. It’s a face-saving thing that I referenced a while back (you’ve reminded me to embed a link) in my “Not Apologizing in Japan” post. So – a lot bullied kids have said that their homeroom teachers have said things like “it’s your fault,” which seems a lot like the 1 percent guilty is half guilty thing.

  2. Catspaw says:

    “Mobbing in the context of human beings means bullying of an individual by a group in any context, such as a family, school, workplace, neighborhood, or community.”

    Is this the behavior described here? How different is this from Japanese society in general? If a 57 year old teacher is playing at this game, what conclusion can one draw except that this is an accepted and expected behavior in Japanese society.

    • owwls says:

      Glad you asked, because I cut a section about that out of the post for length:

      Japanese society is a conveyor belt from childhood to salaried career, and because social dynamics are so crucial to every phase of that process, many bullying behaviors can carry into the corporate and political world.

      Whistle blowers, for example, may be reassigned to boring, repetitive tasks despite their actual talents and abilities. Offices can re-assign workers to remote offices far from their families. These workers will often tolerate this behavior because leaving a job and seeking work elsewhere is a taboo – new workers often start at the same bottom rung of a new company, despite their years of training or experience with a competitor. And quitting is a negative personality trait in Japan, where endurance is paramount.

      So part if the reason Japan may see so much bullying in its children is because bullying is still a common occurrence among adults in the business world. It’s the extreme form of governing through suggestion: The outliers are identified and shamed into proper behavior, and refusal to come back to the fray only invites more extreme punishment.

      • Catspaw says:

        Your insights and comprehensive examination is greatly appreciated by your readers. Please give us notice as you travel to your next assignment, UK, I believe. Would love to continue to read your works. Thanks!

        Mobbing, especially the task mobbing in repetitive or demeaning jobs, is the “adult” form of this childhood phenomena. I wonder in countries of limited resources, high population and demand, these behaviors in general are more common.

        I cannot imagine anyone in a public school in Denmark or Switzerland putting up with public shaming and humiliation child to child and never adult supervisor to child. That seems criminal and detestable. Strength at the cost of compassion? That’s just savages in neckties.

        (LOVE your articles!)

  3. Archana says:

    This kind of bullying goes on in India too. And from what I have seen in the States, it’s pretty bad depending where you are. I was bullied in secondary school in UK but its was mainly just little comments and rudeness from people who were either jealous or unhappy about something. As a kid, I didnt see it but as an adult looking back, I realise now that one of them was really unattractive and looked like a giant version of Chuckie from Rugrats – and she was chunky and smelled bad. But as a kid, all I saw was that she was shoving me for no apparent reason. And the girls who bullied me were ashamed as adults and apologised. Bullying must be worse for boys – I am so glad I wasn’t a boy.

    But it seems the bullying in Japan and USA makes children commit suicide – in India, the pressure the kids are under to get 95% and over in everything has forced them to commit suicide.

    I bet if Japan adopted a zero bullying policy and started suspending and expelling bullies, it would stop pretty much overnight. The Japanese don’t come across as particularly devil-may-care and there isn’t much of a future without completing school. But something tells me some of the teachers take a sick pleasure out of watching kids being bullied or think it’s normal. It makes you wonder how compassionate the Japanese are as people. I know a lot of Americans aren’t but they are polite to people with nice cars and money…

    • owwls says:

      A new law passed by prime minister Abe has provided a list of bullying offenses and how police should respond. The typical examples – hitting and kicking, for example – are to be considered assault and treated the same way that these events would be treated if they occurred between adults at a shopping center or park (also including police involvement, rather than leaving it to the schools).

      The oddly specific list outlines bullying activities and the aspect of existing penal codes that should be applied to them. For example, “putting fecal matter in a person’s mouth and threatening to inflict harm if he or she tries to spit it out” is equal to extortion and will now be treated as such by police.

      And I don’t know what Americans you are hanging out with, but I find the compassion of Americans to be on the whole broader and more readily expressed than anywhere else I’ve been. I have never seen an American who was “compassionate to people with nice cars.” If anything I’ve always assumed that “nice cars” marked people for disdain for being showy and wasteful. I think you need to find new friends!

      • Kii-chan says:

        Throwing in my “two cents” on the American side, but it can be erroneous to make generalizations for certain American behaviors due to the US being multi-cultural (more so in some areas/regions). I’ve seen “face-saving” behavior and bluntly integral behavior in the US, so I would suggest both of your accounts are true, but that there is always another side to those claims as well.
        On “ijime” in Japan, implementing the zero bullying policy certainly might make a difference (as there have been notable changes in schools from Abe’s policies alone), however I’m still reminded of a common trend in Japanese schools – teachers/admin can be overly (or just very) concerned about school reputation. I’ve witnessed and heard of countless scenarios where bullying was not made into a big ordeal or wasn’t reported as the parents of the students would make a fuss to the school, or prospective families would be deterred from enrolling their students in the school. There is a common mentality from parents that the school is solely responsible for influencing/monitoring student behavior and performance – the school is raising the child (for the most part). When there’s a problem, the school is blamed, thus facing immense pressure of responsibility, the school then tosses aside the issue to “save face” as a group/community. [Note: obviously this is a claim for many schools, but NOT all of them, obviously.]
        Due to the nature of the zero bullying policy calling attention to bad behavior, Japanese schools might be more likely to not report the incidents as they (like a singled out student in a classroom) will not want to be singled out, because that would entail that the teachers/admin failed at their jobs. It’s a nasty cycle, right?
        In this article, it was an interesting perspective to see the attention turned onto the bully (isolating him out for bad behavior), as that’s what the students are determined to avoid – the spotlight pointed on an individual. In American early childhood education, we typically like the method of using an individual child’s name only when praising them. In cross-cultural communication studies, with regards to Japanese business, we learn that singling out one company employee for praise would put stress on them, single them out from their team, and may cause social issues for them among their colleagues as a result. A very common response would be “oh no no! it was a team victory!”
        It seems as if there is no direct answer for exactly how to lessen the extremities of bullying in Japan, but taking into consideration social psychology, the high context culture in combination with verbal/nonverbal communication, and (if you’re a foreigner) your position in the community – people might be able to piece a solution together (like a puzzle)!

  4. Tim says:

    Interesting post. It makes me think about an article I read recently. The gist of the article was that Japan as a society values human relationships more than principles/truth, while the Chinese and South Korean societies are more oriented towards principles/truth. As such, the Japanese will sacrifice truth and principles to maintain harmony (or at least seeming harmony), while the Chinese and South Koreans are more willing to sacrifice relationships in order to maintain principles. I’m not an expert by any means, but a Japanese friend of mine agreed that truth often takes a backseat to harmony in Japan and talked about how damaging this mindset is to healthy relationships.

    • andy says:

      This makes a lot of sense to me Tim, I have seen this in my friends and my time in the three countries you mention. The Japanese ‘social harmony’ is really a hard pill to swallow at times when you come from a culture that cultivates respect for the individual. When everyone in the society is on the same ‘harmony’ wavelength then it doesn’t take much of an upset to loose respect from the group. So I can see the sense in quietly pushing the bully problem underground or moving the ’cause’ of the trouble to another area, then the school doesn’t loose face (and income)

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  6. figtree23 says:

    Have you heard about that famous English common knowledge that 90% of bullies are bedwetters? Might be worth mentioning that in class and see if the bullying continues

    • Mallory Thompson says:

      I know that this is a really old post, but this is important for anyone who reads these comments in the future.

      Telling students that bullies are bed wetters, is unacceptable. Doing so, as a teacher, or an adult, would make you complicit in bullying.

      Your actions could result in former bullies becoming the target of bullying. This might satisfy your sense of justice, but it is wrong. Bullies are just as weak as the children they victimize. Often bullying is a way for children to hide their own insecurities.

      Children are generally not empathetic. They are most concerned with themselves and how others perceive them. They want to be strong, popular, respected, loved, envied, accepted etc.

      Rather than lashing out inappropriately, teach them the kind of behavior that is worthy of respect, and admiration.

      • figtree23 says:

        Hey Mallory,

        You’re right. Rereading my post after having read your response, it seems flippant of me. Thanks for picking me up and providing deeper insight.

      • mido says:

        I know this is a old post too, but I want to protest, it is true, maybe call them “bedwetters” is a silly way. But empathize and believe that whoever does evil act should be “understood” is just a way to pamper.

        You read that says in this article? a person being burned by cigarettes? I burn with a cigarette once and fucking hurts like hell.

        Someone who has the age to buy cigarettes and spread it to another should not be pampered, I wonder if even you must empathize with him.

  7. I found this very interesting! Bullying of this sort is certainly not exclusive to Japan. This happens in America too…the reason for it all was even the same in my case. Some say I was stuck up and wanted to be by myself too much…the truth of course was that I started wanting to be by myself when everyone started treating me like some sort of weird alien creature that must be constantly reminded of its worthlessness. The teachers who were kind did earn me the title of “teacher’s pet” and of course none of them could change how my peers felt about me. Most simply did not care and some went out of their way to point out how odd I was to my classmates. Some watched and continued chatting to their fellow-teacher friends as I was beat up, so I became a good fighter. Of course these things should not happen, but I am afraid that there is only so much that can be done to stop them. The problem lies within us all, with the part of us that feels shame and wants someone else to blame and punish and torture. I think if people really looked they’d probably find a scapegoat or two in every group of children in every country. We are made to eat dirt, are spat on, get our pants pulled down in public, and so forth, and if an authority figure does actually care, it is always laughed off by the group as a bit of fun. Kids will be kids they say, and that is the sad truth. Kids are humans too, and this is what humans do. Can we be better than this? I certainly hope so…I have a little girl now and the thought of her going through all of that or becoming a bully herself equally terrify me.

  8. Andrew says:

    Great post, as usual.

    In fact, bullying — or social pressure if you like — in Japan is so much a part of the social fabric, it will be tough to fully eradicate. I still applaud the Abe government for trying to lessen its effects, though. Bullying is rampant from pre-school right up through retirement in Japan. You can see it in schools. You can see it in the workplace. You can see it in the home. It is not always in your face and there are many shades and subtle variations of it. But pound for pound there is far more of this in Japan than in places like the US.

    I enjoyed reading this post.

  9. fugenie says:

    The main difference about bullying in the UK and bullying in Japan, as mentioned in this excellent post (thanks BTW!), is that in the UK a bully tends to be one person (with maybe few sidekicks) putting his weight about, whereas in Japan there’s the sense that you are being attacked and ostracized by the entire class.

    I had the experience of both, being a British born Japanese. My experience with English bullying amounted to an unpleasant, but short period in my life, where I was harassed by a lone, troubled kid. Japanese bullying was however much more hurtful, as it was harder to escape the hate and negativity when it was from all your classmates. It’s so much more powerful and vicious when the victim has no where to escape to.

    That said, what happened in my situation is very tame compared to the stories mentioned above and that I hear in the news, both in the UK and Japan.

    Thanks again for your great blog.

  10. Brian says:

    Great post. I often saw bullying happen when I was a teacher in Japan. Once, I asked about what the teacher would do to intervene, and the teacher said “she (the bullied student) must overcome.” I was angry at that, but also saw how this would eventually give that student the chance to deal with her own problems (if she can make it, that is). This was one of the things that helped me understand why Japanese people NEVER complain about issues that would single them out as weak, and only complain about the weather, or something innocuous.

  11. Ran S. says:

    I understand my comment is a bit late, haha, but I just want to say that I love your posts so much! And this article really touched my heart. I’m so sad that there are bullies out there.

    Here in the Philippines, extreme bullying is not very common, and in my school, a bully can get suspended for up to 2 weeks. Last year one of my classmates got a week of working suspension because he fought with another student on Twitter. A few teachers saw their tweets and reported him for cyber-bullying, and he was sent to the Principal’s office along with his parents and the parents of the other teen for a conference. We’re already highschool seniors so it was extremely embarrassing for him. I doubt he’d ever do it again, at least not until he graduates I guess.

    I hope things change in the future . I see cases of bullying in movies and it’s always hard for me to believe how horrible they are because it’s really rare here in my country. If there is a case of bullying here, it’s almost always “private”, only between the bullies and the victim. And it’s always kept a secret because it’s considered an embarrassment here. And of course, there are always people who will stand up to bullies here, or tell their parents/teachers, or at least, do something. But I do know that extreme bullying happens every single day in the world. I hope it changes. It may not happen soon, but I’m hoping…. even if it’s just for the future generations.

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  14. Brian says:

    Great article, thanks. Very enlightening. I actually organize a group that gets together to talk about such issues, among others. I was wondering where you got your information from. If you could provide some sources I would highly appreciate it, thanks.

    • owwls says:

      Most are cited or linked to directly in the text, the police statistics are available on a Google search for police statistics. Other sources like MEXT are also public data but you’ll have to search for it online as I don’t have the links handy, I’m afraid!

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  16. Anon. says:

    I was just wondering what the outcome of your lesson was.

  17. para yudha says:

    interesting topic
    bullying is a very horrible thing for every children in the school. in my past, i was victim of bullying. luckly i was able to manage it.
    i hope i can do something to stop this bullying problem among childrens. there is no good thing comes from hurting people

  18. L says:

    As great and enlightening a post this is, reading it left me feeling disgusted and sick to the stomach. The fact that this kind of behaviour is engrained into Japanese society with the negative effects basically swept under the carpet horrifies me. Of course, I understand that bullying happens everywhere, but this post really gave me a good punch to the gut since I will soon be travelling to Japan for a study exchange.
    Growing up in Australia, I remember there being posters in the classroom saying “We have ZERO TOLERANCE for bullying”. At the time, I don’t think I really understood what it meant. My primary school seemed to be actively against bullying and my high school has also had us sit through videos about bullying. As a child, I have bullied and been bullied before. I certainly believe that because children are humans, and humans have the capacity to be really mean, these things happen. Ten-year-old me thought picking on the kid a few grades younger than me was all just a bit of fun and I also didn’t believe that my friend (?) taking my lunch was supposed to be of malicious intent. My high school does not take well to bullying either. I remember on one occasion our year level co-ordinated spoke to us about an instance of cyber-bullying without naming anybody, expressing her disappointment.
    I’m sure part of Japan’s problems with addressing bullying come from a cultural point of view (like, for example, value in individual endurance) and I truly hope there can be more awareness in the subject to the wider Japanese society. However, the situation seems so convoluted and I believe it requires much thought as there doesn’t seem to a simple solution.

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  25. nikzback says:

    Interesting article. I see this kind of thing quite often working in Japanese schools. However, I think you should provide some references for the examples you highlight, so it adds legitimacy to the stories you’re introducing here. I’m sure readers want to know more about these cases, where you got them from, and how accurate they are. For example, the story of a student who came to class to find his desk had been turned into a memorial. It’s hard to believe that the teacher joined in with this, so I’m sure the readers would want to follow this up. Where does the story come from?

    • owwls says:

      Two of the surveys are linked in the text; the incidents are either part of the case studies or can be found in a search of bullying or ijime in The Japan Times.

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  29. alberto says:

    I would like to cite this page on my research, but it does not mention anything about Publisher/sponsor and Publication date. How can I find these information?

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  32. Maxim Wilson says:

    Ruth Ozeki’s novel ” A Tale For The Time Being ” depicts ijime happening to the young Japanese girl Nao in a school on Tokyo. I found it appalling . It was described as ijime and Googling the word lead me to this article ! I found it hard to believe the teacher participated in it , until I read this article. I suffered bullying at a private high school for two years until the offender left school. I put up with it. My son experienced bullying at the same school. I complained to the teacher . My son developed severe anxiety needing help from a child psychiatrist. (He is now a child psychiatrist!)

  33. Jun says:

    bullying problem is not only at school but at job place called pawahara (power harassment). And at home.. Japanese must learn common sense, true kindness, respect. They need right education for Ijime.

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  35. TathD says:

    All those school-based hentai are starting to make much more sense now. Sigh.
    On a more serious note, if this problem is as deeply rooted in social mores and attitudes as you suggest it is, it won’t just be going away any time soon. This needs some targeted, hardcore, long-term activism – awareness campaigns, studies, parliamentary lobbying, the whole bunch.

  36. Jenny Islander says:

    What happens to the children who can’t change themselves because they have different brains? Children who have inborn differences, such as autism mild enough to allow a child to join an ordinary class but still present and affecting the child’s ability to blend in? Children with illnesses that can’t be just snapped out of, such as depression or PTSD? Does anybody look out for these children?

  37. CathyC says:

    I can see how this dynamic plays out for Japan as an entity. So much easier to diminish war crimes, evade apology, and scapegoat. The dysfunctional family western idea is in force here. Never resolve personal conflict, count on authority brushing off your hurt, or refusing to defend you. The fact that adults do it at work just makes it an entrenchef behavior.

  38. cholicco says:

    Well I agreed with what you wrote, and the fact is, from what I saw across the media about bullying, the asian country include in my own country, the teacher wouldn’t even care if a students got bullied and they only act to stop them, not because they have a sense of responsibility but only because they’re got irritated, and in order they can avoid complain from parents. When in elementary school, I was also fall into the victim of bullying, because I’m fat, and also I’m deaf, I have disabilities, but this kid, like always made fun of me, made me run errands for him and his friends, like buying a food or giving my lunch to him even taking my money, until to the point they would do the sexual harassment like flipping my skirts so everyone can see my underwear! I cannot accept this so I told my Mother about this, one of the group of bullies got expelled, I felt much relieved, I thought it would stop them but it only made their bullying worsen, once they make everyone in class against me, but luckily I didn’t experience any vandalism on my table like in some stories about Asian School’s bullying, but not only they made my classmates badmouthing on me, my best friend at that time became my enemy because I become a victim. They even started throwing their shoes to me, hitting my stomach, and everyone’s in my class was doing nothing, only looked on me with pity. One day, I involved in a fight with one of them and managed to fight back the kid who bullied me, he was injured, it resulted in a small scar on his head, though, it was an act based on a self-defense. Then after the incident, the news spread into his parent’s ears. They felt troubled about it, then the teacher took me to the student’s counseling room, to resolve the matter from both sides, me and my bully, but guess what they had told to my mother? The guidance teacher told my Mother that it’s better if I got expelled because they think I was causing the trouble while in other words, I was the victim here! After that I got scared to go to school, in result I got homeschooled until graduated from highschool, because I still couldn’t cope with the bullying I’ve had experienced, and how people treat my deafness. When I entered university I thought all of this would stop, because I thought now the kids are becoming grown up, and they all started to develop an adult-mind, but no, instead it was opposite of what I wished. In my class, there’s a huge guy who liked to teased me, he even hid my drinks and put them near ventilation windows, luckily I was tall enough, to reach the bottle :( and he even forced me to do the work when we’re in group projects, then mocking me by calling me stupid if couldn’t get the answer right, even harassing me verbally, and sexually (in terms, he opened his shirts, because he thought it’s funny since I never had experience with guy or being in a relationship and I always get nervous when I’m around guy!) Then he always like scolding me with intimidating looks when he had the chance, in front of everyone. But the worst part all of my friend just laughing like nothing happened, and they even started teasing me too, then one day they bullied me too, badmouthing me behind them, referring me as Lecturer(Teacher)’s pet (actually one of lecturer bullied me too, I still didn’t know his motive but he always made me feeling low) in one seconds he made me become a target of badmouthing, no hitting around or anything related to psychical abuse like in elementary, but everyone started to exclude me in their activity or talked to me. Worsen, they even dare to bully a lecturer! Luckily he got a big patience to deal with them. But one day I decide this silence treatment, should stop so I told my parents about the bullying, then they arranged a meeting with my lecturer and came to have a talk with my but the Lecturer did nothing, even simply brushed it off as if they only joking with me or trying to get to know me better. I just like WTF? It’s bullying! Not joking around, or even close to playing around like a friend’s do! I know the difference! But what made it became interesting that, one day I found out that actually my classmates disliked my bully too but they don’t want to become his victim, so they played along with him. I hope it’s enough to show that the teacher never care, but I’m still lucky that my parents to support me while in majority case, the parents thought it was normal and it was part of adapting into a norm. Sometimes it made no sense what my parents and my psychologists said about how to evade the bully, they said I should following them, and stop being distant. While in reality, I’m not, aince my first day I always tried to make friend and said “Hi” then smiled to them, but they turned their head aways from me.
    It’s depressing, I never experienced of what is being fallen into a depression but now I’m, and I also ever think of suicide. The main reason why this guy don’t like me not because I was uncooperative but because when the first time I was in group project with him, I refused to do his part, because I’m still working on my part, we already agreed to work in our part and we had dicussed it first. But it made him pissed and he started bullying me from that day.
    But this is what happened based of my experience, I’m afraid it also happened in Asian’s school in another region or even the whole world had it! Because I noticed, even I’m from South-east Asia, I noticed they have similar method, and the bullying method always focused in social exclusion. I should think it’s clever tactic, because being pressured psychologically is more frightening, made you think that everyone’s hates you than being hitting around (even it hurts too and certainly I don’t want to, like when I was in elementary)

  39. Marcus says:

    This is a great article. I am glad that I found it!
    One other concept that will become more apparent in the future is the concept of cyber-bullying. With keitai providing private and nearly omnipresent means of communication and monitoring, cyber-bullying is becoming easier to accomplish. What is scary though is the fact that it can be used within a class setting but cannot be monitored by teachers. Additionally, the younger Japanese generations are beginning to rely on the Internet and keitai email, and so quitting keitai also is impossible as it will set them apart from the group…making them a target for any bullies.

  40. Hadashi no Panda says:

    This is a topic which, alas, is not likely to go out of date any time soon. While your post speaks of the specifics of Japanese culture, it talks of things which many of us around the world recognise. In thanks for this post, and to help others interested in this topic, I would like to strongly recommend Oima Yoshitoki’s stunning manga ‘A Silent Voice’ which dramatises many of the attitudes and ideas presented here. Oima’s genius is to show us the bullying of a profoundly deaf girl from the perspective of the bully and his classmates. It was only published after some struggle, but that it was published, and that the author was so straightforward in her exposure of these issues should give those who love Japan hope, plus many lessons to learn for our own versions of this problem.
    Read ‘A Silent Voice’! It is harrowing, heartwarming, thought provoking and rewarding.

  41. Allis says:

    You see, I’m American and had been bullied by two girls in the same year(oddly I had befriended one of them at the end of the year). One drove me to suicide and I’m glad I didn’t do such a thing. Where I went to for middle school kids would get into physical fights over petty things like “You stole my crush”. And people would WATCH these fights. More than 10 like 20 or more would WATCH and CHEER like frikin morons and dare I say Natzi’s and demons(I’m sorry if I offended anyone by using that dreadful title). If you’re going to fight, fight for something worth fighting for. Also many people exclude one of my friends friend because he cuts himself and even with this knowledge, no one helps him. I won’t go further into that though because it gets personal. But seriously bullies must know they will get karma. And I hope that karma hurts. I have a zero bulling tolerance. And also, just because you have bad stuff happening to you in your life, it’s no excuse to bully someone. At all. And I’ll tell you why. I was abused for a good 10 years of my life and had been harshly bullied yet I love helping people and saving lives. It’s what I live for. That’s because no one in this world deserves to suffer. And if you lead someone to suicide, who knows, maybe you’ll end up in hell. By bulling someone you’re no better than Lucifer(Satan) himself. Abuse is no excuse. If it was then I’d also be a bully. Thank God I’m not. Life is so much easier when you live in peace. So seriously, treat others how you wish to be treated. Think hard on what I have written. Thank you. I hope you all live a long and healthy life and to anyone being bullied I wish you luck and send you my love (♡´艸`)

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