Behind the Violence in Japanese Schools

ACCORDING to the Japanese press, Japanese secondary schools are in a state of crisis, a blackboard jungle of murder and suicide. The high test scores for which Japanese students are renown are gained at the expense of humane schools.

For the last decade, the Japanese media have reported shocking cases of ijime, or bullying in schools. The supportive and cooperative shudan seikatsu, "group life," valued in educational ideology, seems to have been replaced by a sort of "Lord of the Flies" behavior, ranging from verbal teasing to beatings sometimes resulting in death. Americans have almost grown used to hearing of peer-group violence in the United States, but the resonance of such reports in Japanese society is great. To the Japanese th e statistic of more than 4,500 attacks and 13 deaths, in addition to 22,000 incidents of bullying over the past year, is a significant number.

Violence among youth in America, including gang attacks, is not easily compared with that in Japan. Guns are more readily available in the US. Murder among American juveniles age 14 to 17 has recently doubled. The average age of the US murderer is dropping to the mid-teens. Youth, a time once associated with personal angst and the search for identity, now includes death and destruction.

Violence in Japan occurs not as random flashes or wars between factions, but as calculated campaigns of marking, teasing, isolating, and punishing those perceived as different.

In Japan's seamless social harmony, living with diversity is a real problem.

Ideology and social practice emphasize being similar, subsuming signs of difference. Young children are made to feel personal and cultural unease when asked to accept distinctions. Personal unease results from striving to be acceptable to one's friends. Cultural unease results from the Japanese preference to hide what is difficult to include in a consensus.

It would be easy to conclude that Japan's highly disciplined and pressured school environment increases a need for students to act out and rebel. But Japanese teachers and classrooms are by design actually less harsh and rigid than ours. Japanese classrooms, especially at elementary levels, show unexpected tolerance for chaos. So much so that Americans are sometimes nonplused. An American teacher walking into a noisy, physically lively Japanese classroom would call it out of control.

Surprisingly, a Japanese teacher often measures pedagogical success by the noise level of the room.

Why then, in such a relatively expressive and open environment are there examples of violent hazing? Why, for instance, did three Japanese 14-year-olds beat and suffocate a classmate in January of this year, witnessed but unimpeded by others?

The junior high school years in Japan are stressful; children work hard and attend cram schools in order to earn test scores that qualify them for academically ranked high schools. In the US, children are most at risk for dropping out in their early teens.

Schools in America serve functions different from the basically academic nature of schooling in Japan. US secondary schools, for lack of other community institutions serving children and families, must act as broad social-service agencies; they must pick up the pieces and still keep children in school to learn. And in the US, children bring to school the conflicts of their communities, replicating the racism and violence they see.

The fictions of Japan's meritocracy, and America's open options, are obvious to our children by the age of 15. In both countries, high school is the last stop for most children. In Japan, this shut-down of opportunity produces a crisis of identity and empowerment. And a lack of confidence can produce intolerance. Bullies in Japan are patrolling deviance, letting children who are different know that they are unacceptable.

Bullies are the unofficial agents of normalcy. Unlike Americans who operate under more blatant forms of differentiation such as race and class, Japanese young people appear to be engaged in the intense attention to fine detail of identity and appropriateness.

IN Japan's elite high schools of the early 20th century, ritual hazing revealed the pecking order. But bullying has become more violent, more personal, and less predictable. In Japanese schools, bullies attack children who have returned from overseas, children of Korean ancestry, children whose mothers are divorced, and so on.

Teachers have avoided intervening for fear of becoming victims themselves. And in some cases, a bullied child is marked as different, simply by virtue of having been bullied. Not infrequently, such children may retreat into solitude, truancy, violent retaliation, or even suicide. In a society where interdependence is the means and end of the good life, being locked out is disastrous.

To appreciate the unique nature of this problem, consider one response to school violence. Some schools have created kosoku or school regulations, in some cases hundreds of finely detailed rules that govern hair length precisely and specify garment choice down to permitted fabrics. Japanese teachers say the rules help children know what is expected. The model for correct attire and behavior is thus codified, and the school has done its part.

Of course this doesn't always work. More rules often inspire a more active deviance, such as the illegal pegging of uniform pants cuffs or the addition of a gaudy brocade lining in a uniform jacket. Thus the kosuku provide guidelines for more rebellion than had previously existed.

Still, Japanese teachers contend that the children (Americans included) are more comfortable as they resemble each other than as they differ.

Commentators and critics agree that there are larger problems this surface similarity cannot mask. The causes of school violence are educational, eco- nomic, and social. Pressure of entrance exams is now being applied to students of middle- school age who are less able to deal with the intense selection system. Bullying is especially noted in the last year of middle school at the moment of testing into high schools. Japan's recession is causing new distinctions between the "haves" and "have-lesses." Life styles are diversifying, including a rise in single-parent households, the introduction of more Japanese returnees from overseas, and the inclusion of children of foreign workers into the school system.

BOTH societies are concerned with the welfare of children, and children are affected by their society's cultural choices.

In the US they are placed at risk in an environment ideologically given to promoting diversity but functionally incapable of producing the cooperative harmony needed to survive; in the other, they are at risk where society favors the notion of similarity over diversity, while functionally unable to accommodate the differences that do exist.

In general terms, Americans need to emphasize similarity of options, goals, and outcomes for children; Japanese need to deal with diverse realities. Thus both can begin to learn something universal about children and society by observing the relationship between our cultural codes and daily risks and realities of student years.

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