Bullying in schools

Ijime victims driven to suicide and murder

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared as
"The unfortunate victims of Japan's classroom bullies" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 128(20), 23 May 1985, pages 65-66

The most topical word in Japan today is ijime. Work it into the title of a weekly magazine article, and hundreds of thousands of school teachers and parents will want to read it. Make it the theme of a full-length TV drama, and children will fight to watch it unless they are already engrossed in a comic book story about Japan's mounting social malady.

Ijime, meaning "bullying," is not a new problem in Japanese schools. But it is certainly the most widely discussed issue in recent months, thanks to a few sensational suicides and murders committed by students who were unable to find other means of coping with the ways their classmate allegedly maltreated them.

Educators rejoiced when the National Police Agency reported that cases of violence in schools were down last year from the record high two years ago. But incidents of bullying, which easily go undetected or unreported, are thought to be increasing. Last year, 1,920 (1 percent) of the 192,365 youths who were investigated as suspects in criminal cases were boys and girls taken into custody in connection with 531 incidents of violence and delinquency related to bullying.

Violence or extortion by children against other children accounted for 502 (95 percent) of the bullying incidents. The other 5 percent involved offenses by children who had sought revenge against those who had bullied them, including one murder and three attempted murders. Seven suicides were also provoked (which is not to say caused) by bullying.

In January this year, a 13-vear-old middle school girl hung herself from an electric cord she had fastened to a utility pole in front of her house. Some classmates had written such things as "Fool!" and "Die!" in her maths textbook, accused her of lying, ostracised her and threw stones at her house when she would not come out to explain why she had broken a date with them. They were all "good" girls who thought themselves her friends.

In November last year, the battered body of a 16-year-old high school boy was found in a river. He had been killed with a hammer by two 15-vear-old classmates whom he and two other boys had bullied over a period of months. They had been subjected to such indignities as having their faces painted with a magic marker, their bodies whipped with belts and being forced to masturbate in public.

Investigative reports and documentaries on bullying incidents such as these reveal a common pattern. Teachers, other school officials, students, and even parents are slow to take bullying seriously. Like victims of rape, the bullied child is sometimes accused of having traits that invite aggression. While any student can be bullied, the likeliest candidates are those who do not fit into a group. High-risk types include transfer students, social recluses and ethnic minorities.

Bullies also have various profiles. Some are overt delinquents who publicly torment others as a means of showing their authority. But most seem to be quite ordinary children who are well behaved in front of adults and even other students. So their teachers parents and peers often disbelieve rumours or reports of cruelty.

A ruling handed down this April by the Urawa District Court supports the victims of ijime. An elementary school girl broke some front teeth when two boys slid into her, as though she were the home plate on a baseball field, and knocked her down in the hall. The city of Urawa (near Tokyo) and the boys' parents were ordered to pay the girl and her parents more than 2.7 million yen (US$11,000) in damages. The mayor of Urawa, on behalf of the co-defendants, explained that they would appeal the decision because "it is one-sided to conclude that all injuries from bullying are the responsibility of the school and the parents of the children who do the bullying."

The Ministry of Justice is looking into the human-rights aspects of ijime and the Ministry of Education has formed a panel of educators, teachers, psychologists and psychiatrists to undertake a full-scale study of the problem and recommend countermeasures. The ministry has also issued "discipline guidebooks" to primary and middle schools. This marks a departure from the post-war policy that parents are wholly responsible for disciplining their children.

Japan has about 10,000 middle schools and 5,000 high schools. So 500 cases of bullying a year, conspicuous enough to attract police attention, hardly gives the impression that Japanese schools are greenboard jungles. What worries educators, however, is that police cases constitute only a fraction of all ijime incidents that result in mental distress or physical injury.

In March, the Japan Youth and Juvenile Research Institute reported results of an international survey on bullying it conducted on middle school students and mothers in Japan and the United States. More American students (58 percent) than Japanese students (39 percent) said that they had been bullied or been the butts of pranks. But more American students (39 percent) than Japanese students (19 percent) said that they had intervened when others were bullied.

Some critics argue that Japan's youth are going to pot because Japanese society has been "Americanised." If true, then one would expect Japanese students to be less passive. That they tend to look the other way is perhaps the best evidence that they are, after all, the products of an education system that is Japanese to the core.

An editorial in the Asahi Shimbun, the most critical of Japan's dailies, may have put its finger on the problem when it suggested that children who tease, ostracise, or bully other children because they are different, are merely acting in the same manner as "the intensive culture media called schools" and "the quality control managers called teachers" who bully students by treating them like cucumbers: bent cucumbers are difficult to pack with straight ones, thus idiosyncratic cucumbers are seen as abnormal. Many schools regulate everything from trouser, skirt, and hair length to types of pencil boxes and underwear. Some schools make students with hair which is not naturally straight carry a certificate. Those who cannot prove that their kinks, curls, or waves are natural are seen as troublemakers.

If such pressure to conform is internalised unwillingly, it is bound to want release. And what could be a handier vent than a friend or an acquaintance who seems to be out of step with the group and in need of discipline?