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Bullying of LGBT students at ‘epidemic’ levels in Japan: Human Rights Watch

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students is at “epidemic” levels in Japanese schools, exacerbated by government’s failure to institute effective policies, inadequate teacher training and strong gender segregation, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report released Friday.

Titled “The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down: LGBT Bullying and Exclusion in Japanese Schools,” the 84-page report said LGBT students routinely suffer harassment, threats and violence in a nation where prejudices against sexual minorities remain alive in the school yard.

HRW said the government is largely to blame for this, turning a blind eye to the root cause of bullying and blandly pushing instead for an ill-defined “climate of harmony” in schools in which everyone lives by the rules.

“The Japanese government has made gestures of support to LGBT students in recent years, but national anti-bullying policies remain silent on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Kanae Doi, Japan director at HRW, said. “The government should urgently bring its policies to protect LGBT students in line with international standards and best practices.”

This is HRW’s second report on homophobic bullying in schools, following a 2001 investigation that focused on the situation in the U.S.

The release of Friday’s report comes at a time when a gradual shift is underway in Japan’s traditionally closed mindset on sexuality, as represented by last year’s historic move in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward to recognize same-sex couples.

However, the report — based on more than 100 interviews with LGBT people and with teachers and other school staff — found that bullying focused on sexual minorities remains rife in Japan’s schools, mostly in the form of name-calling but also as physical violence.

HRW conducted a separate online survey of 458 LGBT students nationwide that found 86 percent had heard homophobic slurs from peers or teachers.

“Disgusting” and “these creatures should never have been born” are typical of the comments suffered.

The report also said that homophobic remarks are often viewed by teachers as no more than playful teasing. Educators receive no systematic training on LGBT issues.

Transgender students are particularly vulnerable because of the strong school tradition of gender segregation, which sees everything from uniforms and seating arrangements to hair lengths regulated by school rules.

It said the government’s Bullying Prevention Act does not even acknowledge, let alone prevent, bullying of LGBT students because it prioritizes “school harmony” over singling out groups of individuals for protection.

That law, HRW said, makes no mention of the need to protect marginalized students — be they gay, disabled or foreign. Instead, it merely requires schools to inspire an “understanding of conforming to rules” to prevent bullying.

The report urges the government to “specify categories of vulnerable students, including LGBT students” as part of an upcoming review of the law that is scheduled take place this year.

It also calls for mandatory training on sexuality issues for teacher trainees. Ignorance and unsympathetic comments from staff often lead students into thinking that their sexual orientations and gender identities are “pathological” or “problematic.”

“When students stood out as different, they suffered bullying. They felt isolated, because they didn’t recognize themselves in their school textbooks or any of the lessons they were being taught,” Kyle Knight, an HRW researcher who led the Japan bullying probe, told a news conference in Tokyo on Friday.

Instead, Knight said, students were “learning about themselves, their sexual orientations and gender identities mostly through the anti-gay insults they heard from the students or occasionally, even from their teachers.”

An 18-year-old lesbian university undergraduate from Nagoya who asked that her identity be withheld because she has not told others of her orientation, told The Japan Times that homophobic rhetoric is routine.

The notion that gay people are “disgusting by definition” ran so deep among many of her peers that she could never muster the courage to confide in her friends, lest she became the target of bullying herself.

“Many people think we’re some sort of monsters,” she said.

She lauded the legal revision proposed by HRW: “Thorough legal protection of LGBT students is necessary so that we will know we have a right to be at school — or even be alive.”

Along with the report, HRW also published manga in Japanese and English describing non-fiction stories of discrimination and bullying experienced by some of the LGBT students it interviewed.

The report is the second released by the HRW Tokyo office since it was set up in 2009. A study in 2014 cast a spotlight on the mistreatment of and stigma endured by Japan’s institutionalized orphans and abused children denied access to foster parents.