On Aug. 15 police in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, arrested a 19-year-old man for trying to kill the head of the local board of education. The suspect was reportedly angry at the board’s failure to properly investigate the suicide of a male junior high school student last October. After the parents of the boy demanded an investigation the school conducted a survey of students to find out if the boy had jumped from the roof of a condominium because of bullying. Later, the board concluded that bullying had nothing to do with it, but the parents weren’t satisfied and in February brought suit against the city as well as the three suspected bullies and their parents. The responses in the survey were disclosed in court, showing that many of the victim’s classmates reported seeing instances of bullying and that some had even told their teachers. The suspect presumably felt that the school’s failure to protect the student from violence warranted violence against the school.
The board now admits that the suicide was caused by bullying, and that it tried to cover up the survey results. In a recent three-part series, the Asahi Shimbun reported that surveys are schools’ usual means of “investigation,” but according to an expert quoted in the series they are a bureaucratic dodge, a way for schools to appear to be doing something. The respondents are anonymous and the schools rarely release details. The father of the Otsu victim, however, was insistent, and the board gave him the survey responses on condition that he not reveal them publicly. He was reportedly “disgusted” by what he read, and then sued.
However meaningless a survey is under such circumstances the story the Asahi tells is mostly derived from those responses, which indicate that no one — neither classmates nor teachers — knew how to process the violence they witnessed. The main damning testimony in the survey wasn’t eyewitness accounts of the victim being beaten up, of which there were many, but the so-called practice suicide mentioned by 16 people. In its defense, the school claimed it couldn’t “verify” the practice suicide because witnesses said at first they saw a different student “leaning out the window” on an upper floor of the school in order to show the bullied boy what he was expected to do.
The problem with hearsay about bullying is that bullying is not always easy to identify. The classmates who witnessed the practice suicide thought it was a form of “play” because the victim and his three alleged tormentors were friends, and that’s the sort of things friends do with each other. Even the teachers thought they were just horsing around. Whenever an incident of bullying was reported, a teacher would ask the boy about it and he would say it’s not a problem, that “they are my friends.” One teacher judged that the incidents weren’t instances of bullying but rather of “fighting,” as if that were not as serious a problem. Another observation made in the survey was that the victim was something of a class clown. “He was very funny,” one student wrote. “We thought he was acting scared, as a joke.”
The issue of school bullying rises anew every few years in the wake of a case like the one in Otsu, and the media always root around for social causes, one of which is the influence of popular culture. The Otsu case once again sparked debate over whether television encourages bullying. In 2006, ubiquitous emcee Monta Mino, during a discussion of bullying on his morning information show, railed against a “certain Osaka comedian” for beating his apprentices for laughs. A school principal who was a guest on the show said that it is the job of some comedians to be ridiculed and even physically abused, and that children absorb such cynicism.
Mino’s rant prompted the king of all comedians, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, to issue a rebuttal in his regular Shukan Post column. Kitano (who, for what it’s worth, is from Tokyo) admitted that the basis of his humor is ijime (bullying), but all comedy derives from the idea of “pre-established harmony,” meaning everyone understands it’s all in fun. If children don’t understand, then it’s the fault of their parents and teachers. “Children today can’t distinguish between the truth and make-believe,” he wrote, because their guardians are “stupid.”
Some of Kitano’s broadside was reprinted as part of another essay posted earlier this month by veteran comedian Hakase Suidobashi in the parody online magazine Geinin Shunshu as a response to the Asahi’s request for a statement about the Otsu incident. Suidobashi says he agrees with Kitano that comedians can’t be blamed for the bullying problem. He misses the point. Suidobashi thinks it’s a question of whether or not children copy what they see, but the problem in the Otsu case is the idea that nobody knew if what they were witnessing was bullying or boys-will-be-boys. According to Kitano, viewers possessing media literacy can watch TV and tell that when a comedian beats or otherwise humiliates another comedian it’s all a joke and no one is hurt. But that’s all you see on TV, so when the students in Otsu saw the boy being beaten by his “friends” — and comedians are always victimized by fellow TV personalities — they couldn’t tell if it was a joke, though just in case they informed an adult, who, as it turned out, couldn’t tell either.
Media literacy is a red herring, because whatever the intentions were behind the violence that the boy’s classmates witnessed, it was still violence, and it wasn’t happening on TV. That’s why police have now started arresting suspected bullies, though it may be too much too late. Teaching media literacy to children is all well and good, but they should also be taught that violence is wrong. Of course, if everyone actually believed that, they might not find violent actions very funny, regardless of the context. Then Kitano and practically every other Japanese TV comedian would be out of a job.