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ZERO TOLERANCE, PLEASE

Don’t wait till bullying hits close to home

by Alice Gordenker

This is the column I thought I’d never have to write. It’s about how my son was bullied at school.

When I began this column about my children’s experiences at a public elementary school in Tokyo, I knew someday I’d write about ijime (bullying). That’s the first question non-Japanese ask: “Aren’t you worried about bullying?” I planned to write an article to dismiss the stereotype that bullying is rampant in Japan. I’d describe how well my American kids were accepted in a Japanese school.

When we moved to Japan three years ago, we put our kids directly into local schools. My older boy started in third grade. His brother joined the kindergarten in the same building. They made friends. They were learning. We were positive about Japanese school.

But something changed last April, when my older son started fifth grade. He had been with the same kids for third and fourth grade, but there’s a kurasugae (class change) at the beginning of fifth grade, so everyone was reshuffled. For some reason, the class dynamics changed. My son started complaining that school was boring, that boys picked on him, that he didn’t have any friends.

It was hard to know whether these were the normal gripes of a preadolescent, or something more serious. But one morning last December, he didn’t want to go to school. He claimed he was being bullied.

Bullied? I was skeptical and asked for specifics. As he poured out his story, I found myself reaching for pencil and paper to write it all down. I wrote down the names of the six kids who wouldn’t let him serve them when he was on lunch duty because they didn’t want food he had touched. The names of the girls who moved their desks away from his. The names of the boys who deliberately tripped him during basketball.

As I reviewed the list, I realized my son was being bullied, and by nearly every child in his class. It was a sickening moment. I felt awful for him. I was furious with his classmates. I questioned our decision to put our kids in Japanese school.

Yet I knew from international comparisons of school violence that bullying occurs everywhere, and that it’s no worse in Japan than in other countries. A child is just as likely to be bullied in the United States or England or Norway. But my son’s situation was different from the bullying I remember from my own childhood in the U.S., when one or two aggressors picked on a weaker classmate. My son is a strong child who was still bullied by nearly all his classmates. I didn’t think it had to do entirely with him being a foreigner, because there are other foreign students in his class. Is group bullying more common in Japan? Is there something unique about Japanese bullying? Why was my son singled out?

To find out, I consulted with Kenji Kameguchi, a professor of education at the University of Tokyo.

“There are things that tend to characterize bullying in Japan, including a greater incidence of group bullying, and bullying with many ‘bystanders’ who are aware of the abuse but do not participate or intervene,” he told me. “But those are not things that are unique to Japan. When you look closely, you see the same behaviors in other countries as well.”

In Japan, victims of bullying are often “good” children who excel in their studies. “The other students feel envious and so they attack,” Kameguchi explained. Interestingly, this was my son’s explanation for why he was bullied. “The other kids don’t like it that I’m good at so many things,” my son once said to me. “And it’s worse because I’m a foreigner but do better on kanji tests than some kids who were born here. And I’m better at shogi (Japanese chess) than anyone in the school.”

Kameguchi said Japanese children are less likely to seek help when they are bullied. “They want to be good children and not worry or disappoint their parents. This is the residual influence of old-fashioned Confucian values on modern Japanese parent-child relations.”

Unable to cope alone, some young bullying victims have resorted to suicide or murder. A cluster of such cases in the late 1980s and ’90s attracted a great deal of media attention and brought bullying into the public eye. Consciousness was raised. Reforms were made. The number of reported cases dropped. But even if the incidence of bullying dropped, it never stopped. Children were still being bullied, but no one paid attention; ijime had run its course as a social issue. The focus has shifted to new problems, such as children who refuse to go to school. “The irony is that bullying is one of the major causes of school refusal,” Kameguchi lamented.

As soon as I realized my son was being bullied, I went to the school and met with the principal. She was responsive and intervened at once. The next morning, at an all-school assembly, she read an essay written by a bullied child and asked the children to think about how they would feel if they were treated like that. Bullying is not tolerated at this school, she stressed. In my son’s classroom, the teacher had the children write essays in which many of them admitted to the bullying and expressed regret about their actions. The other parents were informed, and many of them apologized for what had happened. My son continued to go to school, reporting an immediate improvement.

But I wasn’t confident the bullying wouldn’t reoccur. It’s hard to stamp out that kind of behavior once it starts. We could have taken my son for free counseling, but I think it’s wrong-minded to counsel the victim, and not the perpetrators. The whole class needed group counseling and ongoing supervision, but there are no school counselors at most Japanese elementary schools. In the end, we bowed to my son’s wishes to move to an international school, something we were planning to do, in any case, by the time he reached middle school.

Victims of bullying often suffer from depression, anxiety and low academic achievement. Some refuse to go to school; others become violent. Bullies often move on to more aggressive behavior and delinquency. Putting trained counselors into elementary schools would be a step in the right direction. But what is really needed is a society that won’t permit children to mistreat other children. Bullying may be pervasive, but adults shouldn’t dismiss it as “just something kids do.” We simply shouldn’t tolerate it.

It’s time to put bullying back in the spotlight.