TRG Info and Advice

Japanese Schools and Bullying: from a teacher and mother’s point of view

Safety in Numbers

Schools in Japan are all-encompassing institutions that determine everything from the path your kids take to school to the type of shoelaces in their shoes.  Earrings, nail polish, hair accessories, and even hair lengths and styles are all things schools weigh in on, at the junior high and high school levels, too.  To Westerners, this may seem intrusive and unnecessary, but in Japan, it is all in an effort to maintain a certain level of control, which is linked to safety, which is linked to peace.

The image of the docile, studious Japanese student is pretty accurate.  Visit an elementary school in Japan and you will most likely witness students attentively focused on their teachers, taking notes, actively discussing, presenting, building and creating. School assemblies are models of decorum, with neat rows of children sitting with their knees bent and feet in front of them, hands clasped around their legs, and facing front.  These behaviors are taught, practiced and internalized starting in preschool, and most Japanese kids adhere to them without thinking twice.

There are cases, however, where these efforts to control the student body fall embarrassingly short. With the abolishment of corporeal punishment, teachers (and parents!) often find themselves wanting for effective disciplinary techniques.  Students can easily smell fear in their superiors and may take advantage of a weak teacher’s lesson to let off some steam.  The ultimate respect afforded teachers in the past has ebbed somewhat, too, so that parents and students are not as awed of educational authority.

Teachers working themselves nearly to death (visiting hospitals for a quick IV before work in the morning, chugging energy drinks and supplements during the dinner hour) is also a phenomenon that has recently leaked from the business world into the education one.  Though contracted for about forty hours a week, work hours, both at school or at home, can quickly total near sixty. Once one of three pillars (with family and community), schools are now expected to take up the slack for the growing number of dysfunctional families and aging communities who spend more on nursing home shuttles than school supplies. Expansion of special education programs, including “heart-to-heart” classrooms for troubled youth, have increased the number of teachers in some schools, but there are still many places that are short-staffed, with even administrators performing some clerical or custodial duties.

Pressure-Cooking Education

This increase in pressure on schools to raise future citizens of the world cannot help but overflow onto the students, and this frustration often plays out in the case of bullying. In recent years, in response to some tragic situations, the issue has been debated heavily in public and the Ministry of Education has taken official measures to combat it by asking schools to set up specific policies to deal with bullying. Student surveys filled out at home, anti-bullying banners hung around the school, parenting workshops and the addition of school counselors are some of the ways in which schools are trying to eradicate the problem.

Attitudes towards and efforts to combat bullying, however, are not always synchronized, available, or effective, leaving students who are being bullied with few options for action. Many kids transfer to new schools, some withdraw from school, and some, in extreme cases, hurt themselves. Taking into consideration that teachers and parents cannot be with their charges 24/7, addressing the bully or bullies directly can sometimes make the situation worse. The covert nature of bullying in Japanese schools, especially, can make it nearly undetectable to the more clueless adult. Teachers and administrators turning a blind-eye or attempting to cover up extreme cases of bullying has also been a problem.  Ignoring the signs or, in some nauseating circumstances, condoning the bully’s behavior, can leave the victims feeling hopeless, and other witnesses wary of their own safety.

Parents these days can often hinder the school’s traditional role, as well, by being increasingly demanding of teachers and administrators, and taking things into their own hands. Often dubbed “Monster Parents,” these guardians are adept at pointing fingers and blaming anyone but themselves for their children’s problems. Moms and dads getting involved with situations of bullying can potentially exacerbate the problem, sending the message that their child is weak. Thus said, parents know their children best, and should be advocates for them, especially if teachers are unaware of the situation. Keeping the lines of communication open between home and school, and of course, between parent and child, is essential to identifying trouble before it becomes a full-blown problem.

Blame the Game

This said, with all of the attention being paid to bullying in the media and the prevalence of violent video games, are kids and parents more likely to label behaviors as destructive or aggressive? Some studies have discovered a link between a hypersensitivity to threatening behavior and long-term exposure to violent video games. Basically, those who are used to violence, may be more likely to identify certain behavior as such, even in ambiguous situations.

Are video games also to blame for the increasing inability to interpret the nuances of human interaction?  Teasing has long been a part of school life and it is usually done in fun, but some people argue that, these days, it is being used as a cover for more sinister feelings. Finding positive ways to interact with their peers is something all children have to learn and they do it like they do everything else, through play, and trial-and-error.  The difference between these social experiments and bullying is when children are unable to gauge and adjust to the reactions of their classmates.  If one child says something that hurts another’s feelings, then both what was said and the reaction to it should be addressed and apologies made.  Difficulty with feelings of empathy, or an inability to recognize and apologize for wrongdoings can impede the healing process, but with time, most children learn how to successfully nurture their friendships.

One exercise that seems to work, especially with younger children, is to mimic the face of another, in order to experience his or her feelings. Studies have shown that the act of smiling itself, can often make one feel happier. Likewise, making a sad, hurt, or angry face can stimulate those feelings. In Japan, this may be more difficult, however, because even at a young age, children are taught to hide their true feelings (out of respect for the group/community) with a “poker face.”  This ability sometimes makes it difficult to recognize the true effects of comments or behavior.

Targets of Tyranny

Most Japanese people have a strong cultural intolerance for those who stand out from the group, but on the other hand, can also possess an innate kindness for those who are different when it is considered “not the person’s fault” (i.e. mentally or physically challenged individuals). This is not always the case where biracial or haafu (half) kids are concerned and the number of half-Japanese kids who are bullied is disturbingly high. Targeted for their non-Japanese appearance, including skin, hair and eye-color, as well as their cultural differences or language, life in Japanese schools can be especially tough for these children. They often respond by distancing themselves from the “foreign” parent, and refusing to speak any language other than Japanese. Efforts to teach tolerance in Japan is not yet what it is in the US, due, in part to a strong and deep cultural tendency to embrace conformity, but understanding and acceptance of those who don’t quite fit in are growing step by step.

As a teacher in Japanese schools for close to twenty years, and a mother to four biracial, bilingual, bicultural kids who attend these schools, I have been both witness to and provided counsel for situations of bullying. I have given heartfelt support and empathy for the person being bullied, and have sent my fair share of stink-eye to the perpetrators, as well.  In Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives, edited by Amanda Gillis-Furutaka, members of a bilingual association weigh in on bullying.  They offer several suggestions for dealing with it, too, including: keeping the lines of communication open, understanding the Japanese way of dealing with these incidences, encouraging children to defend themselves, and developing self-confidence.

One recommendation that especially stands out, maybe because I include it in my own counsel, is the importance of defending yourself.  Bullies often pick their victims because they assume that person is weak, either mentally or physically.  Practicing verbal comebacks for various situations or studying a martial art not only provides kids with some self-defense techniques, it can also nurture the self-confidence to utilize them when necessary.  The shocked look on my son’s face, when I encouraged him to use some of the aikido moves he has been studying for the past three years to defend himself from a teammate who was bothering him, surprised me.

“I can?!” he said.

“Of course!” I replied. “The point of knowing a martial art like aikido is to protect yourself in situations like this!”

For the first time in a while, a smile spread across his sweet face.

“I won’t be mad,” I assured him. “And, if you get in trouble at school for fighting, I have your back.”