Bullying in Japan is a hot topic in the Western press, and it made headlines again this week when a court made an historic decision in a key case.
In 2011, a second year middle school student in the city of Otsu leapt to his death from his family's apartment building. The student's school went to great lengths to cover up the facts surrounding the case, leading the boy's parents on a years-long quest to uncover the truth. Information gleaned from other students soon revealed that the boy had been horribly bullied in the months leading up to his death. His classmates insisted they were just "playing around". That explanation and the lack of contrition expressed by several of the kids didn't satisfy the boy's parents, who launched a wrongful death suit against the families.
Their quest for justice came to a head this week when the District Court of Otsu ruled that three of the students who had bullied the deceased middle schooler were responsible for his death, and ordered them to pay 38 million yen (appr. USD $343,000) in damages.
(JP) Link: Suit for Damages for Bullying - Verdict Today: Focus on Bullying as a Cause of Suicide; District Court / Shiga Province
大津・中２自殺：いじめ損賠訴訟 きょう判決 自殺との因果関係焦点 地裁 ／滋賀 - 毎日新聞
The 2011 case was a watershed moment in Japan. The school's craven attempts to cover up the other students' bullying behavior drew national outrage, and led to the passage of a new law, the Law for the Advancement of a Strategy to Stop Bullying (いじめ防止対策推進法; ijime boushi taisaku suishinhou). This week's judgment was no less revolutionary, as it was the first time that a court tied bullying directly to a student's suicide. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the verdict holds - and, if it holds, whether it makes a difference in attitudes towards bullying.
Bullying: Japan vs. The World
Yet I was a little unsettled by some of the fevered coverage I saw around this case, especially in the Western press. Bullying cases in Japan are often treated as some sort of special nightmare. I even had a commenter on one of Unseen Japan's recent posts call out the country for its "extreme" bullying issues. For all of the attention that the issue gets, you would think that Japan has the worst bullying problem of any nation on Earth.
But the statistics don't bear that out. A 2013 Unicef study put Japan 19th behind such countries as Austria, Belgium, and France. In fact, Japan actually ranked 12th of of 30 countries on the index of countries with the least bullying.
(JP): Link: What Position is Japan? Ranking of Countries with the Most Bullying
Furthermore, few of these cases end in the ultimate tragedy: suicide. In 2016, according to Asahi Shinbun, only 6 of the country's 320 cases of suicide among primary and secondary education students could be attributed to bullying. In 2018, that number increased to 10.
(JP) Link: Youth Suicide Rate Won't Fall: Last Year, 320 Primary and Secondary Education Students
To be sure, there's a deeper underlying problem in this statistic. As the Asahi article points out, while the general suicide rate in the country has decreased steadily since 2007, the numbers for youth suicide have remained stable. But the predominant factors appear to be academic performance and worries about the future.
The pressure that Japanese society puts on youth to do well in school and succeed in life is a far greater factor in youth suicide than bullying. In fact, bullying is itself likely an outlet for relieving some of this pressure.
Increasing Awareness = Increasing Coverage
What seems to be true is that the 2011 Otsu incident and the ensuing fallout has raised Japan's own awareness of its bullying problem - which, until then, people had been doing their damnedest to ignore. In order to better ferret out the real extent of the problem, in 2016 and 2016, Japan's Ministry of Education (MEXT) began revising its questions regarding bullying. As a result of these changes, and of growing awareness of bullying in general, MEXT's 2016 survey saw the number of recorded cases shoot up by over 90,000, to an historic high of over 320,000 cases.
What's more, notes writer Ishii Shiko in response to this jump, is that the problem seems to be stubborn and persistent. 90% of all of these cases are marked as "resolved" within three months - and yet the number of cases doesn't drop from year to year. What's likely happening here, Ishii argues, is a never-ending vicious cycle: bullying occurs, it subsides after the school intervenes, and then it starts over again the next year.
(JP) Link: Incidents of Bullying Hit a High Point of 320,000
いじめ発生件数は過去最多32万件、注目すべきは『うち９割が解消』という不思議（石井志昂） - Yahoo!ニュース
So why do bullying incidents in Japan get so much attention? Part of the reason is that they're getting more attention in the Japanese press, and that naturally bubbles up to the Western press. And some of the incidents are truly shocking and blatant - for example, the story this week of the viral video depicting two students being kicked by their classmates. The incident is so violent that a chorus of voices in the country is calling for it to be handled as a criminal matter.
(JP) Link: Two Private Schools Students Beaten by Classmates...Video Goes Viral
These stories tend to generate a lot of outrage in the country, not just because of the bullying, but because they often involve school administrators attempting to cover their asses. The Otsu case is a good example: the parents took the case to court after a school inquiry failed to determine whether bullying was the cause of their son's death. No one in charge wanted to take responsibility for their potential failures as this child's school-time custodians.
This is a depressing pattern in scandals in Japan, where those in charge furiously attempt to shift the blame of their actions onto people below them. Last year's "vicious tackle" scandal, in which coaches at Japan University tried to shift blame for an illegal football tackle solely onto the shoulders of the responsible student, is a recent example of this.
Yes, Japan has a bullying problem. But as the statistics show, so does every other nation in the world. It's a global issue. And Japan has other work to do in terms of relieving the immense pressure it puts on its kids. But in my opinion, Japan doesn't get enough credit for how far it's come in facing up to bullying - and for how hard it's working for change.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.
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