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Solution to bullying lies in ‘resetting’ culprits

by Michael Hoffman

“The biggest problem in Japanese education is the idea that you can eliminate bullying by reforming the system.”

That provocative statement opens an article in Shukan Gendai by the eminent Catholic novelist and conservative thinker Ayako Sono. It is provocative because the prevailing view is that bullying, not the effort to eliminate it, is the problem. Bullying, Sono maintains, is a fact of life — school life, professional life, social life. It arises in turn from another fact — that the human heart is not and never will be purely good; that evil is an ineradicable part of our nature. Her solution, imperfect but realistic, would be to strengthen individuals to cope with adversity rather than to struggle against the grain to build an adversity-free society.

The suicide in December of an Osaka high school basketball player physically abused by his coach is the latest evidence of something rotten beneath the polite and considerate surface of Japanese life. No doubt every society has its own variety of rottenness beneath, if not actually on, the surface. One point substantiating Sono’s position is that the flurry of hand-wringing and reform talk attendant on the Osaka incident will seem as repetitious and predictable to a long-term observer as will the incident itself. To go back no more than 27 years, in May 1985 a 16-year-old high school boy from Gifu Prefecture was beaten to death by his teacher while on a school trip. The boy had been using an electric hair dryer. That was against school rules. The teacher beat him as a disciplinary measure. The boy went into shock and died. There was talk then too of reform. Twenty-seven years is a long time. Maybe Sono is right. Maybe the problem is simply eternal.

Sono refers to the Osaka suicide, but in an unexpected way. She says it reminded her of something she witnessed among the Inuit. A lot of transportation in the Arctic is by dogsled. Among the dogs attached to the sled is one whose sole purpose is to be whipped. Its barking spurs the others on. Such, she says, metaphorically speaking, was the boy’s role on the basketball team. Inuit or Japanese, she implies, primitive or hyper-civilized, humans are human and the variations among them count for less than their similarities.

To what extent is the world subject to change, and to what extent must it be simply accepted as given? It’s an ancient question. Broadly speaking, Asian culture stresses acceptance, Western culture change. One Christian answer through the ages has been that only divine grace can change sinful human nature. Sono writes, “Humans, unlike animals, can exercise self-control through reason. The training to do so is called education.”

But is education — especially mass, standardized, career-oriented education — always sufficient? Bullying is not the only evidence that many children are going astray. Some children turn violent and destructive at home. Others experience eating disorders. Hikikomori — complete withdrawal from society — is widespread; so is the condition known as NEET — not in education, employment or training; doing nothing, in short. Sono’s “strength to cope” and “self-control through reason” are obviously not universal. She rejects the notion of systemic failure, but the evidence of failure at some level is hard to ignore.

The weekly Shukan Post raises an issue it calls “resetting children’s characters.” Conscientious parents of growing children are beset by doubts at the best of times. At worst, the doubts turn to anguish: “I was a bad parent, I did it all wrong, if only I could raise my child over again!”

You actually can, claim some specialists.

The expert Shukan Post speaks to is Aichi Gakusen University early childhood education specialist Harutaka Kadota. From infancy to age 9, he explains, is “the period of direct experience” — youngsters soak up whatever happens to them without much brooding over what it all means. This is when they learn — or fail to learn — to trust the adult world. It depends on the unconditional love and attention received from parents and teachers. Failure here — sometimes the parents’ fault, sometimes society’s, sometimes nobody’s — can warp the adolescent character-building that follows.

That’s where “resetting” comes in.

Kadota cites a boy who’d been a “quiet type” until his final year of junior high school, when suddenly he began physically attacking his mother and kicking in the walls at home. What had gone wrong? What could be done? Kadota’s advice: “Never mind that he’s 15; treat him like a 1-year-old; indulge him, make excuses for him.” To his violent outbursts his mother would respond, “You’re doing this because there’s something you don’t like, is that it? Go ahead, just do as you please.” The effect was dramatic; within a week the boy calmed down and “began trying to put his feelings into words.” Pity the story doesn’t tell us what those feelings were.

An even more spectacular illustration is the famous case of “Youth A,” who at age 14 in Kobe in 1994 killed and beheaded a 10-year-old. Sentenced non-punitively to rehabilitation because of his age, he was given treatment that included a “counterfeit family” — the head of the treatment institution was “grandpa,” a male psychiatrist was “dad,” a female psychiatrist was “mom.” This “family,” in effect, reared him all over again, from infancy on, with results considered successful enough to allow his release into society under a totally new identity.

What, one wonders, would Sono make of this? She was born in 1931; her childhood was shaped by militarism and war. The lifelong lesson she drew from it is that, given sufficient will, individuality is always triumphant. And will is strengthened by adversity. She recalls her struggle to study English at a time when English was banned as “the enemy language.” She persisted, with encouragement from her mother. Once a teacher caught her reading an English book. Sono, braced for a reprimand, got a surprise — more encouragement. Nor, she says, were these isolated cases.

Contemporary Japan’s biggest problem, in her view, is not a failure of the system but a failure of individual will.