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School bullying on the rise in Japan

It has become more vicious with Net presence; suicides linked to bullying have also gone up

Published on Oct 16, 2012 4:11 PM

Exactly one year ago last Thursday, a 13-year-old boy took the long walk up a 14-storey apartment block in Otsu, a nondescript town in central Japan, via the concrete stairwell.

Once he reached the roof, he jumped to his death.

His parents blamed his suicide on prolonged bullying by schoolmates.

While school bullying is hardly new to Japan, the phenomenon and suicides attributed to it have grown ever more common. Bullying has also become more vicious with the arrival of the Internet.

Last year, 200 students at junior and senior high schools killed themselves, 44 more than the year before. It is not known how many of them were victims of bullying.

Earlier this month, the Education Ministry released a study in which it identified 250 cases of school bullying in the last six months, starting from April, which were so severe that "the child's life or physical well-being was at risk".

The ministry said it is "confirming the details" of the cases and will discuss with local education boards to determine whether they warrant its intervention.

The report also said there were 75,000 incidents of bullying in the same six-month period - a sharp increase over the 70,231 cases reported during the entire school year last year.

It is the Otsu case that triggered a renewed nationwide debate about bullying in Japanese schools and the devastating impact it can have on young people.

In his report filed with police, the father of the boy in Otsu said the bullying that his son endured included being burned with cigarettes, forced to shoplift, having his school books destroyed and being ordered to try mock suicide.

Still, it took 10 months before the school and the police gave in to the demands of the boy's parents that an independent investigative committee be set up to look into the death.

They initially refused to accept that there was any link between the boy's death and his being subject to long-running bullying. Their position spotlighted the inaction of teachers, the local education authorities and police in preventing cases of bullying.

"School bullying is a pathological phenomenon associated with Japan's communitarian classroom management methods," said education sociology associate professor Tetsuya Yamada of Hitotsubashi University.

"Suicide caused by bullying has been a serious social problem in Japan since the 1980s, but the perspective from which the issue is debated has changed," he added, pointing to the need for a fresh approach to tackle new factors contributing to bullying.

Schools and local education boards are being asked to take more responsibility for bullying, he said, at a time when teachers are increasingly distrusted as capable of handling such tasks.

For a start, it must be noted that the dynamics within Japanese classrooms have changed, he pointed out. Students increasingly tend to form closed sub- groups, which maintain their internal order by attacking or excluding others.

Another reason for the increase of bullying is growth of the Internet, said Prof Yamada.

"These days, we see more cases of so-called 'cyber bullying', where attacks are made via Internet sites such as bulletin boards," he noted.

The day after the ministry's report was released, two 14-year- old boys were arrested on charges of forcing a fellow student to strip naked in a classroom, taking photos of him and then posting the images on a website.

"There are various forms that bullying can take and, whether it is physical or mental, the results are equally serious," said Mr Shinichi Sato, a spokesman for Tokyo Shure school, set up for children who, for whatever reason, refuse to attend regular education institutions.

Boys tend to harm one another physically, while girls make more subtle attacks on rivals or those who fail to "fit in" with their group, noted Mr Sato.

Another problem complicating the issue is the Japanese trait that demands one "endure" unpleasant experiences and not burden others with them.

Children and young people tend to be even more careful of the feelings of others than adults, and so would think, "I shouldn't make people worry about me", wrote psychiatrist Rika Kayama recently in a column for the Mainichi newspaper.

"Worst of all, some children believe they are being bullied due to some fault of their own."

Dr Kayama warned that if adults fail to make an effort to listen to a child's problems, there would come a time when a bullied and depressed child hits on the thought "It'd be better if I just didn't exist".

Meanwhile, three boys are awaiting trial in the Otsu case.

"It was not bullying," said their lawyers, citing the boys' defence. "It was a prank."