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Blame it on the hara: harassment vocabulary makes us all victims

by Colin P.A. Jones

Japan has a new hara. No, the nice couple down the hall didn’t just have a baby; according to recent news, yet another form of harassment — abbreviated as “hara” in Japanese — is supposedly becoming a social problem. This time it’s -hara, or “social media harassment.”

Though you might think so from the name, it doesn’t refer to using Facebook or other social media to harass people by slagging off their ruminations and cat pictures. Rather, sō-hara describes the discomfiture that comes from accepting a friend request from your boss or coworker and then feeling pressured to actively “like” their ruminations and cat pictures — not to mention the stress of no longer being able to use Facebook to vent about what idiots your boss and coworkers are.

It also encompasses problems of the type experienced by a young woman featured in a recent Asahi Shimbun article on sō-hara who had felt deterred from posting photos of a recent trip to Disneyland because . . . she hadn’t bought omiyage for the coworkers she was connected to on Facebook! Clearly a problem requiring third-party expert intervention.

Despite its outdated reputation as the land of lecherous salarymen who spend their long days fondling office ladies before heading out to buy used high-school girl panties from vending machines (has anyone ever actually seen one of these?), Japan has come a long way in the fight against seku-hara, the abbreviated Japanese rendering of “sexual harassment.” Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Act has required employers to combat sexual harassment in the workplace since 1997, and employers are under increasing pressure to banish sexually inappropriate words or conduct from the workplace.

Somewhere along the line, however, the suffix “hara” took on a life of its own, leading to a growing list of other forms of “harassment.” While some describe potentially harmful types of nonphysical bullying, others may leave you scratching your head. The following is a by-no-means-complete list of some of the other types of “hara” that one may encounter living or working in Japan.

Aka-hara — “academic harassment,” also known as “campus harassment”: Going beyond the type of inappropriate sexual pressure that can arise in a professor-student relationship, aka-hara is a concept that seeks to address a wide range of behavior found in campus environments.

Different schools have different policies, but the University of Tokyo’s is a good example. Todai defines it in terms of any abuse of authority in an academic context that “disadvantages [a] person in studying, receiving education, conducting research, or performing their duties, or . . . causes mental and physical suffering that will inevitably hinder him or her from studying, receiving education, conducting research, or performing their duties.” A related term, sukūru-harasumento, expands the concept from universities to schools.

Pawa-hara: “Power harassment” refers to the abuse of authority in the workplace — superiors using their position to bully subordinates while cloaked in the veil of the employment relationship. The term is said to have been coined by Yasuko Okada, who founded a consulting firm that helps companies deal with . . . workplace harassment.

Teku-hara: Not all harassment comes from the top down: “Technological (or technical) harassment” refers to the use of one’s superior technological knowledge to make other people feel inadequate (I thought computers did a perfectly good job of that without human assistance).

The origin of this term is uncertain, but I like to think it was invented by middle-management oji-san who, befuddled both by technology and the sudden proliferation of complaints about seku-hara and pawa-hara, figured out a way to fight back by developing a victim classification they could call their own.

Mora-hara: “Moral harassment” is a form of abuse originally identified by French psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen. It covers an extremely wide range of psychological bullying behaviors. Moral harassment in the workplace was banned by law in France in 2002. A Japanese translation of Hirigoyen’s book on the subject was published in 1999, and since then claims of mora-hara seem to have become extremely common in the workplace and within family relationships.

Aru-hara: Ah, the good old days, when university seniors could force froshes to drink until they needed an ambulance — when you could demand that employees who joined the company later than you down tankard after tankard of beer, and then maybe dance naked for your amusement.

What, you can’t drink? Maybe you don’t have enough company spirit. Shockingly, this is now considered to be a form of harassment: alcohol harassment.

Bura-hara: Discrimination based on blood type. Really. In Japan different blood types are associated with certain types of personality traits.

In one episode of “Gintama,” my favorite anime cartoon, there is a sequence where the characters rag on each other by speculating about each other’s blood type based on their various character flaws. The specific blood types are actually bleeped out, possibly to avoid offense to the people who follow this sort of nonsense.

Rabu-hara: Apparently it can be “love harassment” to talk about your boyfriend or smooch in front of other people — presumably, people who manage to live in a world without TV, the Internet or any popular culture in which romance is featured.

Eiji-hara: “Eiji-harasumento” (“Age Harassment”) is the title of a 2008 novel by author Makiko Uchidate that, according to reviews and blog descriptions (sorry, I have been really busy, see . . .) deals with the problem of most men apparently preferring their women young, and the “harassment” this inflicts on women who are not.

On the Internet, eiji-hara appears to have morphed into a catch-all term for any sort of negative feelings people of either gender are made to feel on account of being above a certain age. It has some competition from the related term shiruba-hara (the Japanese rendering of “silver” being commonly used to refer to old people).

Mariji-harasumento (“marriage harassment”): any sort of commentary that makes a woman feel bad about still not being married.

Sumeru-harasumento (“smell harassment”): marinating in perfume or otherwise inflicting what you think smells nice on those around you. Personally I would prefer to call it “aroma-hara,” but then the difference between this form of harassment and aromatherapy is lost on people like me.

-harasumento: Kūki, the Japanese word for air, is often used to refer to the atmosphere or “vibe” of a social situation. “Air harassment” is apparently any sort of act or behavior that damages the mood.

Of these various forms of hara, sexual, power and moral harassment are taken seriously as workplace issues. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has even set up a special website just to address pawa-hara. Beyond these, however, it seems like all you need is a word processor and an audience of fellow victims to create a new form of harassment. A few newspaper articles and enough Google hits and it can become an established part of Japanese culture. This being the case, I would like to offer a few candidates of my own.

Harō-hara: Seeing a foreigner and saying “harō.” Sure, it’s funny the first time you do it, but the novelty for me wore off around the 10,000th time.

Ere-hara: I realize that Japan’s arcane electoral campaign laws leave politicians with few options for establishing name recognition with voters other than driving around in a sound truck shouting their names. But it is still really, really annoying. Furthermore, some non-Japanese residents might have their feelings hurt by the constant, abrasive reminders of their inability to vote.

Ekusupa-hara: Expats presuming to tell other expats the “correct” way to be a foreigner in Japan.

Perhaps I am guilty what might be called sāka-hara — using sarcasm to belittle potentially serious problems. As a parent I feel strongly that children both need to be protected from bullying because of their vulnerability, but taught not to bully as part of the educational process. As a lawyer I appreciate that sexual harassment in its worst form may involve using the employment relationship to facilitate or cover up clearly unlawful — even criminal — behavior such as offensive physical contact or sexual assault, and that even in milder forms it represents a form of discrimination that women should no longer have to put up with.

I also understand how various types of workplace harassment need to be addressed, particularly in Japan, where there is often little flexibility in employment relationships. Joining a company and staying with it for decades is still the ideal for many people, but those who succeed in doing so may be left with few avenues of escape from workplace bullying, such as finding a comparable job elsewhere. Some companies may even have an incentive to encourage or at least turn a blind eye to harassment because the inflexibility works both ways: Legal restrictions on terminating employees can be circumvented by allowing an employee to be bullied until they quit “voluntarily.” So it is also understandable that labor regulators are seeking to address a broad range of harassment in their guidance and regulations.

At the same time, however, if harassment is defined too broadly and vaguely, it can stifle even legitimate, socially useful conduct — free speech, even — and make it hard to accomplish, well, anything. For example, does the definition of academic harassment given above apply to giving students failing grades? It will probably cause them mental anguish and may limit their future academic opportunities, so as a professor I would like to know. Probably legitimate grading is not “behavior,” but you never know. The only way to be completely safe is probably to not fail anyone.

Similarly, I know several managers at Japanese companies who are terrified that any negative comment they make to a subordinate will boomerang back to them as a harassment claim. Since so many types of harassment are completely subjective — being derived from the feelings of the individual making the claim — organizations can get bogged down dealing with even loopy, completely unsubstantiated complaints (why are you still not doing anything about my torment from the orbital mind control lasers?!).

Furthermore, diluted and trivialized with each new iteration, harassment in Japan seems to be a mechanism for turning every person’s subjective feelings of victimization into a “social problem” — of turning your problems into other people’s problems. Yet, part of the process of growing up and growing old is coming to grips with the fact that you must accept the world as it is a great deal more than the world has to accept you. The spread of frivolous forms of harassment seems to run against this basic reality, and the acceptance of the growing taxonomy of forms of “hara” seems to be part of an ongoing trend of infantilizing the populace, by proffering new ways to avoid growing up (ironic, given how rapidly the country is graying).

On this note, I will close by offering up one other new type of harassment for your consideration: hara-hara — the invention of new forms of harassment so you can get other people to deal with your problems rather than confronting them yourself.

Colin P. A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Can you think of any new types of harassment that haven’t been discussed in this article? Please send your suggestions with a brief (ideally witty) description, and your comments on these issues, to community@japantimes.co.jp .

  • http://twitter.com/__Tatu Tatu

    I would add “Ishi-hara” to the list. It is seemingly eternal nationwide harassment device against all things foreign.

  • Ron NJ

    Once again Japan seems to be missing the point – just as with “human rights” (jinken), where things like getting punched in the face count as “violations of human rights”, yet things like discrimination and hate crimes are flatly ignored.

    • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

      Define “hate crime”.

      Those things should be ignored by government because it is simply individuals exercising their own freedom — freedom to hate and discriminate if they want. To make laws about discrimination is to sanction throttling the human mind: it’s a dangerous precendent.

      If people want to be bigots they should be free to be. If we legally force them out of that behavior it only hides their beliefs from view, like throwing homeless people in a dark corner — no one has to see it, but it still exists and still has the same effect. And when we can’t see it, we have less incentive to be outraged and deal with the real problem in a proactive way, instead of a morally righteous “there should be a law!!!” way. Making a law cannot change someone’s mind.

      Discrimination and “hate” are cultural issues, not legal issues. Private organized shaming or boycotts are the way to go, not government lobbying; which makes the lobbyist even worse than the bigots — they become bullies, using the guns of the state to enforce their own preferences. If I have to choose between a bully and a bigot, I will take the bigot 7 days a week. Coersive social engineering, no matter in what name, is far more dangerous than someone’s negative “discrimination”,

  • Magnus

    “Shockingly”? How is it not harassment to force your employees/coworkers to take drugs, albeit legal ones? Of course it is harassment when you unfairly accuse others of harassing you, but potential alcohol poisoning is quite serious.

  • Peter

    What I find interesting is that all the harassment words are borrowed from English. Is this to give the impression that these harassments have been introduced from abroad,
    or are a new phenomenon in Japanese life?

    • leaf

      I think that because “hara” is an abbreviation of an English word, it just sounds better when coupled with another English word. I doubt many Japanese think that these forms of harassment have been established in foreign countries and are being newly introduced to Japan.

  • leaf

    I live in Japan and have not even heard of most of these “haras” that the author lists as examples. You can add “hara” to just about anything unpleasant and jokingly pretend you’re a victim, but I would think only a few are mainstream. As for people using these terms so that they can make it a social problem and use it as an excuse to not grow up is kind of an overstatement and a bit ridiculous.