Japan steps up efforts to detect bullying in schools as cases reach record high

TOKYO (YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The number of bullying cases at schools has reached a record high, according to a survey released by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

Efforts are being made to detect bullying at an early stage. However, the number of serious cases, which includes cases that result in suicide, increased compared to the previous academic year, underscoring the challenges schools face in addressing bullying.

At Miyagino Junior High School in Sendai, students are asked to fill out a "worksheet" every month about their daily behaviour, including questions about whether they know of any bullying cases.

The teachers received a sheet this year in which a student had written, "My classmate's attitude hurt me."

Teachers talked to both the student and the classmate and found that the classmate had jokingly taken a cold attitude towards the student. The classmate later apologised to the student and their relationship improved.

This school year, the school confirmed 14 bullying cases by the end of September, such as incidents in which a particular student is ignored.

"We frequently discuss cases with other teachers, including the head teacher of a grade," said a teacher in charge of student guidance at the school. "Now we more stringently address cases, even smaller ones."

The Sendai city government and individual schools are taking various measures to detect bullying cases, such as conducting questionnaire surveys themselves. The city government also increased the number of school counsellors from this school year.

In Sendai, the number of students in first- and second-grade elementary school classes and first-year junior high school classes is capped at 35. The city has expanded the smaller class sizes to second-year junior high school classes, aiming to monitor even subtle behavioural changes among students.

Efforts to detect bullying are being implemented throughout the country.

To counter bullying online, the Miyazaki prefectural government has set up a website through which it offers consultations to students. Since August, images can be posted to the website, which helps students receive support for bullying via social media.

In Osaka city, the city sometimes instructs schools to conduct a re-examination if the schools say there were no reports of bullying.

There are also large gaps in the number of recognised cases among local governments. According to the ministry survey, only 8.4 recognised cases of bullying were reported per 1,000 students in Saga Prefecture, the lowest among all 47 prefectures.

"We'd like to encourage local governments to more actively recognise (bullying cases)," a ministry official said.

The number of serious bullying cases is not declining nationwide. According to the survey conducted by the education ministry, among 474 "grave incidents" in which children's safety was endangered by bullying, 55 cases involved life-threatening harm that could trigger suicides, among other dangerous outcomes.

In the 2017 academic year, the Niigata city government began conducting a mandatory questionnaire survey on bullying at least three times per year at all municipal schools to address the problem.

When bullying is discovered, the city government requires schools to hold internal school meetings involving staff in managerial positions other than homeroom teachers and student guidance teachers.

In Niigata Prefecture, a first-year student at a prefectural high school who had been bullied killed himself in November 2016.

It was noted as problematic that information about the bullying was shared with only some teachers and that the boy's claims of victimisation were not broadly shared with other teachers and school officials.

"In some cases, teachers may try to only address problems themselves. Therefore, we'll take thorough measures so these problems don't lead to serious bullying," an official of the city's board of education said.

"At schools nowadays, teachers are so busy that they don't have enough time for their students," said Kwansei Gakuin University Professor Chieko Saku-rai, who specialises in pedagogy.

"It's important to create an environment in which children can easily consult (teachers), and a system in which schools as a whole tackle bullying."

The number of truant students at elementary and junior high schools hit a record high of about 144,000.

"Children and their parents increasingly believe that there is no need to go to school if it causes great pain," an education ministry official said.

In February 2017, the law to ensure educational opportunities came into force, stipulating that the central and local governments support truant students by providing opportunities for them to study at alternative schools and other venues outside regular schools.

In Komae, Tokyo, the city government has dispatched clinical psychologists to the homes of truant students, and the city helps them build relationships of trust with others through overnight nature excursions and other initiatives.

"There have been many cases in which students return to school after receiving long-term support and not being pressured," an official of the city's board of education said.