Recently a child committed suicide (自殺) in Fukuoka (福岡). He left eight notes at the school addressed to various people saying that he could not stand the constant bullying (苛める) and was going to kill himself. The news reported that bullying “might have been a factor” in this case. This comment belies the desire to sweep a lot of this under the carpet.

Various factors have pushed this case to the center of the news talk shows, even to the point it is rivaling the North Korean threat for airtime. Fukuoka has a relatively low suicide rate which flagged this case, but investigations have revealed that this boy’s bullying problem was apparently initiated by his homeroom teacher last year. After the teacher started bullying him in front of the other students, they saw this as a pattern for them to follow. The boy reported the problems, but the school’s investigation showed there was no unusual circumstance. Later, the boy’s mother came to school to rescue him, which resulted in a new level of abuse as he became labelled as a mama’s boy.

The school has since apologized. The Board of Education has publicly announced that it will not rely on reports from the schools about investigations in the future. (They have discovered that eight cases of bullying had been reported at the school, but no reports were sent to them.) The Ministry of Education has also started investigations and is hinting at policy changes.

One morning talk show pulled out some telling information this morning. First they showed the school suicide numbers for 1999 to 2005; fortunately there has been a downward trend, from 163 to 105, but every year 0 cases were attributed to bullying. Next they displayed an enlarged copy of the official form for reporting a school suicide. There were two main categories: personal problem (listed first), and school problem. Within the two categories there were several reasons. The second to the last reason listed was ‘bullying’, with the last being ‘other’. An instructional note across the bottom of the form stresses that only one category should be selected. This layout would naturally lead one to check a box before getting to bullying. It has also been suggested that the schools are not likely to check a box in the ‘school problem’ section: self-policing always being a touchy process, at best.

Last year a girl in Niigata (新潟) left notes at school stating she could not put up with bullying anymore and killed herself. Psychologists investigated and decided they could not prove a link between the bullying and the suicide. Since they couldn’t talk to the girl this seemed a bit dodgy.

Last night I was watching TV interviews of students. Most students were in agreement that there is no bullying at their school. Everyday at my junior high school I see incidents of bullying. Generally, when I interrupt and ask them what they are doing they answer, “Just playing a kind of game.” My feeling is that most of the bullies don’t think they are doing anything wrong; however, occasionally their reaction to my simple question reveals they don’t feel good about what they are doing. Always I seek a way to indicate that this is a problem without ‘cracking down’ on them.

Having suffered teacher initiated and student initiated bullying from kindergarten through high school, I am always in favor of systems being changed to treat everyone in a respectful and encouraging way. That said, I am also concerned about creating a system that absolves the individual of personal responsibility. After Columbine many labelled Eric Harris as a victim of bullying and tried to blame others, yet he had been unanimously selected as soccer team captain and chose to walk away from that. Violent, vandalous, and suicidal behavior are all unacceptable responses to abuse.

I hope Japan can find the best path forward to reduce abuses and encourage respect, making them a model for others.


5 Responses to “Bullies”

  1. Sunkissd1 Says:

    It does seem a bit surprising that this goes on in the Japanese school system since it seems their culture is based on respect and following traditions.

    Rhetorically speaking of course, it would be interesting to track the occurrence of suicides caused, at least in part, by bullying now vs. when we were in school.

    It does seem as though bullying is taken more seriously now than then. Same with sexual harassment. When I was in middle school there was an unbelievable amount at my school and on the school bus compared to my other friends’ schools. Administrators just shrugged and said “eh, boys will be boys” and left it at that.

  2. びっくり Says:

    I have sometimes described Japan as a Land of Contradictions, because it defies pigeon-holing. There are tremendous traditions of respect; however, there are some amazingly cruel practices. This can be applied to many conditions: shyness/openness, humility/arrogance, nature-loving/environmental destruction, safety/danger, creativity, emotion, …

    Once I described this and the listener responded, “like Yin and Yang.” But, really it feels like Yin and Yang with the middle cut out. I have been meaning to write on this for a long time, but the title ‘Land of Contradictions’ seems like it could easily be taken as offensive.

  3. Sunkissd1 Says:

    You could more gently refer to it as “the land of differences” or “opposites”.

  4. びっくり Says:

    Hmm… the Land of Differences doesn’t quite cover it, but ‘Opposites’ might work. Well, I have been letting this one stew for a year, so I will ponder it a bit longer. If I decide to be gentle, I may have to take your recommendation. 🙂

  5. Sunkissd1 Says:

    I wouldn’t call it gentle, I’d call it diplomatic or even observational. Ü

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