Long troubled by school bullying, Japan now eyes zero tolerance

Japanese responded to record numbers of severe bullying cases last year, prompting a national outcry and calls for legislation. But a proposed bill doesn’t address schools' intense culture of conformity, critics say.

By , Correspondent

After months of relentless bullying at the hands of three classmates, 13-year-old Hiroki issued what must have seemed like an empty threat to his tormentors. "I'm going to die," he told them in a text message. "You should die," was their response.

In the month before his death, verbal taunts escalated into punching and kicking; his arms and legs were bound and his mouth taped. He was made to eat dead bees, shoplift, and even "rehearse" his own death. When his teachers were finally informed, they issued only a verbal warning. 

Soon after, the teenager, identified in the media only by his first name, jumped to his death from the 14th floor of an apartment building in Otsu, western Japan, in October 2011.

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His death prompted Japan's most serious attempt in decades to tackle the classroom culture of bullying – long seen as a rite of passage in a deeply competitive education system. 

Statistics on school bullying vary, but new official data reveal a worrying trend. Regional legal affairs bureaus in Japan responded to a record 3,988 cases last year, an increase of more than 20 percent from 2011, the justice ministry said. The national police agency, meanwhile, said it had investigated 260 cases of school bullying in 2012, well up from the 113 cases in 2011.

Psychological and physical abuse is not confined to students. In a survey spanning 10 months beginning in April 2012, the education ministry found that 840 teachers had used corporal punishment against students – more than double the number of cases recorded in the preceding 12 months. The problem was highlighted late last year when a 17-year-old boy in Osaka killed himself after being routinely beaten by his high school basketball coach.

Amid a national outcry over several high-profile bullying cases, at least two of which led to suicides, the government introduced a bill earlier this year that promises zero tolerance for bullying among students, and physical punishments meted out by teachers.

The bill, which will be voted on by the end of June, requires teachers and parents to notify school authorities of bullying cases, to offer victims and perpetrators guidance, and to involve the police if alleged crimes have been committed.

The legislation – part of an overhaul of education ordered by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – also calls for an outside third party to deal with cases when a child's life or safety is at risk, and for teachers to make more use of their power to suspend bullies. 

Will it work?

Critics say that placing the onus on teachers is unlikely to change much. They point to evidence that teachers routinely fail to act on rumors that bullying is taking place on their watch, for fear of being labeled as incompetent that it happened at all.

"Broadly speaking, it doesn't matter what individual teachers and school officials do, they won't be able to prevent bullying because of the school environment they work in," says Asao Naito, associate professor in the department of psychosociology at Meiji University in Tokyo.

"The group is all-important and takes precedence over individuals' feelings. But if schools stop running themselves like army units, and children are given the freedom to express themselves as individuals, just as adults are allowed to do, and the law protects children from violence by peers and teachers in school, just as it does outside school, then I think we will see a decrease in the number of bullying cases." 

Rather than tackling the culture of conformity in schools, the pressure of regular exams, and the role of overcrowded classrooms in fomenting discord among pupils, the measures include the introduction of moral education classes in elementary and middle schools.

Details of the curriculum are sketchy; the panel of experts advising Mr. Abe has said only that moral education be introduced to teach students to be "emotionally and physically balanced." 

‘Untouchable communities’

In his first major policy speech since becoming prime minister last December, Abe talked of a "crisis in education, in which insidious bullying occurs in one case after another among children who will shoulder the future of Japan, while pride in this nation's history and traditions wanes and there are concerns regarding declining academic achievement, which should rank among the world's best. It simply will not do for us to stand idly by." 

The plans were greeted by skepticism by some sections of the media. In an editorial, The Japan Times said that lofty ideas about a moral education ignored the root of the problem. Far better, it said, would be for the government to "reduce the teaching and clerical burden on teachers so that they have more time to share with children" and end the "obsession with rote memorization and test taking."

Mr. Naito, who has spent decades studying bullying, says an improvement in bullying statistics is unlikely without practical changes to the school environment. 

He describes Japan's schools as "untouchable communities" where students have no choice but to be there. "In an environment where students are forced to spend almost all their time together, they live under their own set of rules that aren't always acceptable in society," he says. "Students are forced to follow the pack, to think the way everyone else is thinking."

What happened to Hiroki’s family? 

There has been justice, of sorts, for Hiroki's family. 

Local police initially failed to act on complaint filed by his father, while his teachers said they had found no evidence of bullying. It was only when students at his school were invited to complete an anonymous questionnaire that the terrifying truth of the teenager's last days came to light.

This February, the Otsu city government finally admitted that bullying had played a part in his suicide and offered his parents compensation.

The passage of time, though, hasn't weakened the feeling that he was failed, by education officials, the police and, above all, his teachers.

As one of his teachers told the Mainichi Shimbun: "When I close my eyes his face floats to the surface of my mind. I was so shocked when it happened, all my confidence as a teacher disappeared."

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