When I was taking Japanese classes in university 6-7 years ago or so, I remember the teachers mentioning that bullying was becoming a big problem in the schools. At the time, I still thought that Japanese schools were pristine halls of finer education, so the only “bullying” I could imagine was everyone teasing Tanaka-san for only getting a 98% on his calculus test.
After having lived in Japan and worked in the school systems for over three years, I know better.
I’ve chronicled to some extent some of the problems I’ve personally seen at the Ghetto School. But lately, this shit has gotten out of hand. Lately, a lot of junior and senior high school students (mostly junior though) have committed suicide due to bullying. In one case I was following, a 14-year old girl had been viciously bullied by her teammates in the basketball club. She committed suicide, and in her suicide note, she named the four girls who’d, literally, bullied her to death. The school’s initial response was to say “We’ll, we don’t really have any evidence that bullying goes on at our school” and conducted a general survey of the students in which they found no particular signs of bullying. However, the girl’s best friend came forward and said, “Yeah, the bullying happened, a lot”, and then the school finally recognized that the victim had been bullied, which lead to her suicide.
And that’s just one case.
A few weeks ago, actor Beat Takeshi had a show on TV about the state of education in Japan. That sucker was 6 hours long, live, no joke. I didn’t watch the whole thing (I have better things to do with my time, like knitting) But from what I did watch, a lot of it was disturbing. Even elementary school kids are involved with bullying, some even having considered suicide. They brought about 12 elementary school kids and their mothers in, and separated the kids from the mothers – some guy interviewed the kids while the mothers watched in a separate room.
Most of the kids had been bullied. Many of the kids had also done bullying to other kids. When asked why, they said that it was fun. They said, “if a kid is being bullied, then there’s probably a good reason why. Like, something’s wrong with them.” Out of the kids who had been bullied, a handful had considered suicide (these are elementary school kids, I just want to make sure you haven’t forgotten that). They thought if they did commit suicide, they’d probably get reincarnated into something happier. Like, a butterfly.
For the mothers, and the celebrity peanut gallery who was watching, this shit was absolutely shocking. For me, it’s Monday through Friday, 9AM to 5PM.
Of course, I don’t need the news stories and a TV show to tell me that bullying is a problem in Japanese schools. I see it with my own eyes. Here are just a few examples of some things I’ve seen throughout the years.
— Stealing money. I saw this happen right in the middle of class. It was 4th period, before lunch, and one of the bad ninensei boys just walked up to another kid and demanded 500 yen from him. The boy immediately went for his wallet. Seeing that the teacher was going to do nothing about this, I went over and told the asshat to leave the kid alone. “No no, he WANTS to give me his 500 yen!” Asshat says. I told him to cut it out, but Asshat takes the 500 yen anyway, knowing that aside from glaring at him I really couldn’t do much about it.
— Stealing things. Bad kids will liberally take the other kids pens, pen cases, notebooks, erasers, etc, and just use them as they see fit. One boy decided he was thirsty, so he took another kid’s thermos and drank all of his tea. Keep in mind that this all goes on right in the middle of class.
— I saw one boy get up once during lunch time, and take his chopsticks and just pluck things from other kids lunches. And it wasn’t like a random side-dish either – he took pretty much ALL of one boy’s fried chicken, which was the main part of his lunch. The teacher was also present for this.
— In one class, I was asking sannensei what they wanted to be in the future. One girl near the front says “I want to be a nurse”. A boy in the back laughs. “A nurse! You can’t be a nurse! You’re far too ugly to be a nurse!” The entire class, INCLUDING THE TEACHER, laughs at this. Poor girl starts crying. I kneeled down next to her desk and told her I thought she’d make a terrific nurse.
— Lots of hitting/punching, of course.
— Name calling. Vicious/mean spirited nicknames.
As an ALT, there’s a lot I don’t get to see of course (classes besides English, break times, sports clubs), but from talking to students, I got the feeling that it goes much deeper/worse from the things I saw. These examples were all from the Ghetto School, as you might have surmised. However, that’s not to say that bullying doesn’t happen at the other schools. The students are just much more discreet about it.
I was translating a composition for Ultimate Sweetness once. In it, she mentions a part where in elementary school, all of the kids suddenly decided to just ignore her existence. She’d call their names, they’d pretend not to hear her. She’d chase after them, and they’d run away. This started from her 4th year and continued until she graduated. (Sweetness says that it was pretty rough, but luckily she had a loving family to go home to. Reading this, I just wanted to give her a big hug and an apple pie or something.) Ultimate Sweetness goes to the School of Peace. Granted, the School of Peace is strict, but considering that the same kids who went through Sweetness’s elementary school also came to the School of Peace, I’d hesitate to say there was no bullying whatsoever.
What drives these poor kids to suicide? For most of them, they feel like they have no allies. Teachers are of no use. The teachers are ultimately powerless. More than that, half of them join in on it! It’s not uncommon for a teacher to call a student by a mean-spirited nickname that some other student has engineered. Or, simply stand and watch as the bullying takes place right before their eyes (see the examples above). Parents are of no help either – a parent would more likely scold their child for being a subject of bullying than actually address the situation. Kids spend more time at school than at home at any rate, so that’s pretty rough. Appealing to the parents of the bullies is ultimately a dead end as well. Ms. Americanized’s predecessor once told me that she would try to tell parents about the bad behaviors of their child, only to hear as a response “Oh no, it’s not MY child. Surely it must be the other children, or YOUR poor teaching abilities. There’s nothing wrong with MY child.”
The Japanese school system is fucked up. It may never reach the level of a Boston Public, or Dangerous Minds or whatever, but it’s still fucked. I don’t think that bullying, or even bullying-related student suicides, is a new phenomenon at all. It just happens to be the controversy of the moment. The sad thing is, I figure people will acknowledge the problem, spin a few wheels for a little while, and then ultimately go nowhere with it. Recently, the government put together an emergency committee, that determined that bullies should be suspended from school should they be found to be interfering with other students right to an education. However, before that plan could even be put into action, teachers and education officials are already wringing their hands and making excuses.
Bullying, unfortunately, doesn’t stop in schools. No no, it continues well on into society, where they rename it the “Sempai/Kohai” system. Remember the story of Ms. Cinderella, who was viciously bullied by the Wicked Stepmother teacher up until she left that school. There is no equality in Japan – the “sempai” kick the “kohai” around, and when the kohai become sempai then they kick around their juniors. It’s a never-ending cycle, and apparently that cycle begins as early as elementary school these days.
And people wonder why I always say I’d never send any of my kids through the school system in Japan.