How does Japan fare when it comes to bullying in Japanese schools and society at large? According to Japan’s National Police Agency (NPA), reported cases of school bullying fell by 25% in 2015, marking the second consecutive year that bullying incidents have declined. Japanese parents, however, still have reason for concern. Despite efforts by local police and educational authorities to put a stop to elementary, middle school and high school bullying, this abusive behavior continues to be a problem.
Understanding Bullying in Japan
In Japanese culture, schools are driven by a high standard of collective thinking and conformity. As such, qualities like “individuality” and “uniqueness” are often stigmatized by students in the collective body. In the past, students who didn’t conform to the norm were more likely to become targets for bullies and could expect to be ostracized, ridiculed or maligned by their peers. In contrast, those who conformed were generally safe from bullying attacks. Today, however, any Japanese child or teen can be a target for bullying, regardless of their conformity stance.
A 2013 study conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan School Personnel Training Center revealed the extensive reach of bullying into Japanese schools. Of the 9,000 children surveyed in the study, approximately 66% confessed to being victims of bullying acts. Almost half of the survey participants (46.9%) further acknowledged to being both victims and perpetrators of these acts. Whereas bullying was a greater threat among students of foreign (or part-foreign) origin in the past, studies indicate that any Japanese student can be susceptible to bullying today, revealing just how entrenched this problem has become in Japanese society.
Characterizing Bullying Acts
Over the years, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has tweaked the definition of bullying, aka “ijime,” to characterize this abusive behavior in all facets of society. In addition to school bullying, instances of sibling bullying, Internet bullying and office bullying/workplace bullying also occur in Japanese society. As such, MEXT’s broad definition of ijime was determined as “an act by a student, or student, toward another student that inflicts some physical or psychological consequence causing the receiving child mental or physical suffering.” Bullying victims themselves determine whether an act causes them suffering and harm.
Bullying can take on a number of forms ranging from verbal insults to physical assaults. After researching errant student behavior in its schools for the 2014 school year, the Ministry of Education released the following bullying facts:
- Roughly 64% of reported bullying behavior in the 2014 school year consisted of teasing, verbal insults and threats
- Approximately 22% consisted of hitting and kicking, howbeit students justified such behavior as “playing”
- About 19% of bullying behavior consisted of students being excluded or ignored by their peers
- Roughly 7.5% consisted of fisticuffing (fist fights)
Consistency in distinguishing bullying signs and identifying bullying acts is key to putting a stop to primary bullying, middle school bullying and high school bullying. To prevent bullying from “falling through the cracks,” Japanese educators and staff need to distinguish between harmless pranks or childish foolishness and destructive behavior that can cause harm. Schools that lack a formal no-bullying policy will find it difficult to stop bullying in their institutions.
What Causes Bullying?
There are various reasons why people bully, whether in a school setting, at work or within a social environment. Studies by MEXT reveal that bullying in Japanese schools occur more frequently after 5th grade of elementary school and throughout the junior high school years. In fact, statistics on bullying reveal a marked increase in this behavior at the onset of junior high, coinciding with a child’s transition into adolescence.
The tremendous physical and emotional changes young people go through during their teen years could be a contributing factor to the rise in bullying activity at the junior high level. Young teens often battle with stress and anxiety trying to keep up with academic, personal and social responsibilities. Unresolved issues at home or school could also cause teens to feel angry or dissatisfied with themselves or others.
Japanese cultural trends such as “hikikomori” which favors personal isolation discourages Japanese youth from complaining or venting these emotions openly, leaving them with little resource but to keep problems to themselves. For some teens, bullying could provide an outlet to express their frustration, anger and stress. In like manner, teens may feel envious or jealous of their peers and take out their frustration on those who are weaker in order to build up their own self-esteem.
Lack of moral reinforcement and personal prejudices could also cause teens to resort to bullying. Many Japanese young people have intolerance toward the LGBT community, for example, prompting students to criticize or ostracize their LGBT peers.
The Internet adds yet another dimension to the problem of bullying in Japan. Through cyberbullying, Japanese students can render vicious attacks on others by posting slanderous comments or photos on social media sites. Smartphones have also become a popular tool for cyberbullying. As most tweens and teens have their own phone, it’s easy for young people to text cruel messages to others they don’t like.
Like conventional bullying, cyberbullying can have devastating effects on a young person’s life. In the case of Facebook bullying, once negative comments or photos are posted online, they remain there for people to read and see again and again. Such negative publicity can cause young people to lose confidence and self-esteem.
Social exclusion or neglect is another form of cyberbullying that can be used against students. In Japan, it’s considered rude to not reply to messages that have been read. Rather than intimidate others with slanderous remarks or threats, bullies simply ignore their targets or exclude them on chat or messaging sites, making them feel inferior or unaccepted by their peers.
Bullying statistics show that cyberbullying in Japan is slowly on the rise, with high school students being the predominant market. In 2013, cyberbullying amounted to almost 20% of bullying cases reported by high schools in the country.
Although the effects of cyberbullying are clearly felt in a victim’s life, teens and parents may find it difficult to pinpoint the source of cyberattacks due to teens using various means to keep their online groups private. In some instances, teens use online slang to cover their group’s identity, thwarting search engine results. In other cases, groups are protected by passwords to keep adults out. If cyber harassment occurs during non-school hours or outside of school premises, schools tend to not get involved, further contributing to the problem.
Cyberattacks are often anonymous in nature, making it easy for perpetrators to get away with their actions without suffering any consequences. Unlike conventional bullying which entails personal interactions with others, cyberbullies can target their victims by communicating incognito online. This gives bullies greater leeway in launching their cruel attacks.
Because of the seriousness of cyberattacks, parents should take precautions with their young teens’ use of the Net and social sites. Young teens also need to be informed of the dangers of posting personal information on such sites as Facebook or “befriending” people they don’t know. Teens should be encouraged to report abusive messages or negative posts at the onset of receiving them, rather than waiting until the situation is out of control.
Unfortunately, many instances of cyberattacks against students are from their own classmates in school or from students in neighboring schools in the area. Sometimes a student’s actions provoke a classmate to anger, prompting him or her to launch an online attack. Oftentimes, others join the attack simply out of “fun”, not knowing how serious it may become.
Because online posts can remain on social sites almost indefinitely, they pose a serious risk of causing emotional harm to those who are targeted. Depending on the nature of the attack, teens may feel embarrassed, ashamed and ostracized by their peers. Adolescence is a time when kids are most vulnerable psychologically and in need of being accepted by their peers. Cyberattacks can not only destroy a teen’s reputation and social standing, but can adversely affect his or her outlook for the future.
A study examining Japan’s child suicide rate between 1972 and 2013 revealed that of the 18,000 suicides that occurred during this time, 131 happened on the first of September. Ironically, this is the same date in which Japan schools reopen following summer break. A large number of child suicides also occur in mid-April, coinciding with the reopening of schools following spring break. Furthermore, in 2015, the most common cause of death for children aged 10-19 in Japan was suicide. These startling facts are a major concern to Japanese parents.
In Western Christian culture, suicide is considered a “sin.” In Japanese culture, it’s considered “a way of taking responsibility,” according to Wataru Nishida, a professional psychologist from Tokyo’s Temple University. This could explain, in part, why children and teens are more likely to commit suicide when confronted with situations that cause them to lose face. Taking into consideration the high suicide rate among school aged children, it’s not difficult to conclude that bullying could be contributing to the problem. In fact, suicide notes from victims often blame pressures at school or abusive bullying behavior as the reason young people take their own lives.
In recent years, serious bullying cases have been highlighted in news stories revealing what victims go through when targeted by their peers. In July of 2014, a young high school student in the city of Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, committed suicide after receiving a barrage of ruthless messages from fellow students on a popular messaging app. Another student in Tokyo stopped attending school altogether after becoming a victim of relentless cyberattacks. Every year students of all ages experience the pain and suffering of bullying. Many are forced to deal with these incidents on their own.
How to Deal with Bullying Attacks
Bullies’ behavior not only affects them and their victim(s), but innocent bystanders who act as an audience to their aggressive acts. Many bullies actually enjoy having a “do nothing” audience as it helps support their actions. Bystanders who do nothing to curtail bullying actually encourage it.
By speaking out against ijime or reporting acts in progress, Japanese students can become part of the solution rather than merely putting up with the problem. Schools must be prepared to take action against bullying offenders by supporting their anti-bullying policies. Teachers also play a key role in curtailing bullying by providing victims with much needed support.
Another means of combating ijime is for parents to instill in their children higher standards of morality, acceptance and compassion so they don’t become bullies in the first place. Parents can also educate their children against the dangers of cyberbullying so they can be prepared to handle situations as they arise.
In 2013, Japan took political action against bullying by passing the Ijime prevention methods promotion law. The law came on the aftermath of a tragic suicide of a junior high school student in the city of Otsu whose fellow students claim was a victim of brutal bullying acts. School educators and its board of education initially denied all bullying accounts in an effort to shun responsibility for the boy’s death. Eventually the truth came out, despite the school’s cover-up attempts, and legislative action was taken to help prevent similar tragedies.
Under the Ijime law:
- schools and local authorities are held responsible for bullying acts on their property
- schools are required to regularly investigate and identify suspected ijime cases
- teachers are required to report ijime cases to their local school board
Rather than downplaying bullying in Japan, teachers and students are encouraged to recognize the dangerous short and long term effects of school bullying and take a stance against ijime attacks.
For further assistance on how to handle bullying in their area or additional facts about cyberbullying, parents and students can contact the following:
- Tokyo Metropolitan Education Consultation Center (Tel: 03-3360-8008)
- Tokyo Metropolitan Ijime Consultation Hotline (Tel: 0120-53-8288).
- TELL Lifeline (Tel: 03-5774-0992).
- Japan 24 Hour Helpline (Tel: 0120-46-1997 toll-free or 0570-000-911)