In 2006, 14 Japanese children from Elementary school, 81 in Junior High School and 220 in Senior High School had similar problems: they were being bullied. They also sought the same solution: suicide.
Japan’s relationship with taking one’s own life doesn’t really need telling by me, and I don’t want to make out as if a huge proportion of bullied children take their own lives as a result of bullied (the same year pulled these numbers from 30,000 reported cases of bullying), but still, one suicide is one too many, and if even that single child’s feeling of being cornered into that one last act indicates a tragic failing of the system, what does several hundred have to say? (The statistics haven’t changed much over the years). This isn’t to diminish the suffering of the thousands of other students who endure it, however.
So what is it about Japan that make bullying so bad that it drives students to that extreme? For that answer you have to look at the culture. Japan is a group-oriented country. The way we Westerners value our individuality and self-expression is the same way a Japanese values their acceptance in the group. Now think back to some of your own bullying experiences as a kid, whether victim, bystander or even perpetrator. Why did bullying take place? It is usually because of the unknown: that student may have been different, or liked/disliked something that the bully disliked/liked. The bully sees this as a threat to his or her validation: how can this person be different to me and still be accepted? And so comes the bullying, either psychologically or physically, as a result of insecurity.
Now, here’s where the difference comes in: in the West, the bully is absolutely in the wrong. Of course they are! We value individuals, so that bully needs to back off and let that poor kid be who they want to be.
But in Japan, things get blurry. The group is always right, even if it is wrong: consensus rules over all. If you have a student being bullied, they really are going to be standing alone: all too often it is the victim of bullying who is seen as being at fault, for failing to meld with the group. There is usually a ringleader bully who will instigate this, pointing out the victims’ flaws or just neutral differences, to which the rest of the class will either agree or be indifferent too, following the flow of the group’s consensus.
The gamechanger: even the teacher’s partake in this. I have seen this happen and it is genuinely horrifying to feel a whole class’ chagrin round on one child like that for no other reason than being different. Some of the bullying techniques can seem quite tame or even immature to the untrained eye, like drawing an animal’s face on the board and putting the bullied student’s face name next to it, but there are layers of deeper mental bullying going on there, and besides, when nobody stands up for you, not even adults, even the most childish of insults can cut deep.
So not only do you have victim’s who are immediately at a disadvantage from the get-go because of little or no support, but you also have cowardly teachers who also have been ingrained with the values of group harmony, and will never act on the blatant bullying displays before them. Don’t get me wrong, though: a great many teachers see bullying for what it is and try to act, but they too are stifled by a board of education who wish to present a pristine image to the public so more people will desire to live, work and spend money there. Schools who have lost students to suicides have outright denied them as suicides for that reason. Oor they may simply be scared of the bully themselves and lack the resources or training to deal with it. So they will stand in a class and laugh either earnestly at a bullied student or nervously, for wishing to keep the peace or shrug it off as being ‘childish joking around’.
But attitudes are changing. Bullying (or ‘ijime’, 苛め, as it is known here) is being taken more seriously and is being tolerated less and less. The trial of the basketball coach is surprisingly high-profile, and walking around a typical school these days you will see student posters condemning ijime, giving bold claims like ‘Never permitted, not forgotten’. Students will have entire lessons on morality during Homeroom classes, and will talk openly about how the classes were to today, giving students a platform to air their concerns. The ijime stats in recent years have ballooned, but I genuinely feel that this is largely down to more effective reporting of these instances.
Bullying will never go away, but there are some aspects of bullying in Japan that are simply not acceptable, especially when children’s wellbeing and lives are being threatened. Japan is glacial when it comes to change, but in this aspect, it absolutely must, and fast.