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Tackling the bullying culture in Japan's schools

Some researchers believe that Japan's brutally competitive education system has something to do with the numerous instances of bullying in its schools. Bullying in schools has a long history in Japan, with teenage suicides often linked to abusive treatment by the victims' peers. (PHOTO: TAN YI WEN)

Publication Date : 18-07-2012


So inured are the Japanese to school bullying, even extreme accounts of bullying instances no longer shock.

One 13-year-old schoolboy was reported to have been "forced to practise committing suicide over and over again".

He asked a teacher for advice, but the teacher did not do anything. The boy committed suicide in November last year.

The above description, elicited from one of his schoolmates, was made public earlier this month. It was met with a muted response. Other forms of abuse reportedly endured by the boy included regular beatings, pulling down his trousers almost every day and forcing him to eat dead bees.

His parents have since filed a lawsuit against three students and their guardians as well as the Otsu municipal government. Otsu is a city in Japan's Shiga prefecture.

Bullying in schools has a long history in Japan, with teenage suicides often linked to abusive treatment by the victims' peers. In the past, such events have triggered considerable public hand-wringing by politicians and educators. The Otsu incident, however, suggests that measures taken to correct the problem have only had limited success.

According to a nationwide Education Ministry survey, the number of reported bullying cases rose by 6.7 per cent to 77,630 in the academic year ending in March 2011. This represents 5.5 bullying cases per 1,000 students, up 0.4 per cent from the previous year.

The Education Department insists the increase is only because teachers are getting better at recognising bullying. But then, many victims reportedly choose to suffer in silence.

According to the ministry, ridicule and slander accounted for most bullying cases, making up 66.8 per cent. Being shunned by friends or groups was the next most common form.

Those who blame the education authorities for being largely indifferent to the problem do not have to look far for evidence.

Responding to a spike in the number of serious bullying cases in 2001, the government revised the School Education Act to oblige municipal boards to temporarily ban known bullies from attending primary and middle schools. A survey by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry in December 2010, however, revealed that about 20 per cent of the nation's 1,800 municipalities had not made the necessary adjustments to their procedures.

Implementation also appears to have been lax. Only 43 problematic students were suspended from school in 2009, the latest year for which data is available.

Some researchers believe that bullying in Japanese schools is a direct result of the nation's brutally competitive education system. In his book, "The Myth of Japanese Homogeneity" (1995), Herman Smith argues that bullying in Japan has three characteristics.

The first is that bullying is most common during the years of intense competition for scarce educational advantages. The second characteristic is that girls are rarely victims - a factor Smith believes to be related to their general exclusion from academic pressures. The third characteristic is that the victims are usually transfer students who do not yet have friends to protect them.

The latter point was underlined by a Justice Ministry report earlier this year, which referred to an increase in complaints of bullying involving children forced to move out of disaster zones in the wake of the March 2011 tsunami.

Other observers have suggested that bullying may be more common in homogeneous societies than multicultural ones. In heterogeneous societies, potential victims can often benefit from the protection afforded by members of their own ethnic or cultural group. In such societies, it is argued, gang violence rather than bullying is generally the more serious problem.

Bullying in Japan may also be exacerbated by social norms that place excessive emphasis on conformity, a point often noted by critics of Japan's corporate culture. If particular individuals display some quality that makes them different, they are immediately singled out. The Japanese manga comics popular among the nation's youth may also inadvertently contain subliminal messages that encourage both victims and witnesses to remain silent. Manga characters typically have large eyes and very small mouths. The implication? Look, but don't tell.

With so many cultural and demographic factors stacked against them, how can the victims of bullying and their parents defend themselves?

The parental response to the Otsu case may show the way forward. The Legal Affairs Bureau in the Justice Ministry handled a record 3,306 bullying cases at schools last year, up 21.8 per cent from the previous year. More parents and students, it seems, are becoming aware of their rights.

Such legal moves may also be having an impact. Education Department statistics show that the number of students whose suicides were linked to some form of bullying last year fell to 156, nine fewer than in the previous year.

More significant improvements, however, may well be dependent upon fundamental changes in Japanese society.


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