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.
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.'”
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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