National / Media | Japan Pulse

Reaction to Niigata bullying video reflects changing attitudes in Japan

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

A video of a first-year high school student in Niigata being bullied appeared online in mid-February and quickly became a topic of discussion. The clip shows a group of male students pushing, kicking and eventually striking the victim with a stick, all while throwing insults the victim’s way, too. The attack was broadcast on Instagram Live, which is how others came across it.

An article on Nico Nico News dissected the footage and the comments section was soon awash with netizens who were outraged at the actions of the assailants. The anger spilled over to platforms such as Twitter, where users called for any information regarding the identity of those involved. At present, authorities in Niigata have identified the high school the victim is enrolled in as well as those involved.

The video struck a nerve with many online and it isn’t hard to see why. Bullying is an ever-present issue that attracts plenty of media attention in Japan, but it’s never resolved in spite of the fact that everyone agrees it’s one of the bigger problems facing the nation’s youth. And as conversations have migrated to social media and allowed a wider number of people to control them, individuals who have actually experienced bullying firsthand can offer their perspective.

Social media has changed the way the topic is discussed online and it continues to evolve with each new case, including the Niigata incident.

At one point, bullying was not considered to be much of an issue in Japan. According to a site devoted to preventing bullying, the country has experienced four “peaks,” starting in the mid-1980s. During that decade, however, it sounds like most people and media downplayed the negative impact associated with bullying (Twitter users support this view, reflecting on times when teachers didn’t consider it a real thing). When the second peak came in the 1990s, though, the general public started thinking that bullying was no longer acceptable. A greater effort was taken to stop it, including Advertising Council Japan debuting their first anti-bullying commercials.

Since then, the government and media have made more overt efforts to stop bullying, including recent news that our future robot overlords are now going to help reduce the number of incidents that occur.

However, the real change is happening online. Over the past two decades, a common message board and social media trope features someone reaching out to their old tormentors — or former bullies themselves being confronted by their past sins — to tell them how they were hurt by it. In extreme cases (and, of course, as with most internet lore, you should take it with a certain amount of skepticism), you get something like the story of a person leaving their fiance because they found out they were formerly a bully. It also helps art and stories against bullying generally attract a lot of love, such as a Keyakizaka46 performance or the story of a kid in Turkey getting revenge on bullies by putting glue in their water (netizens lapped this one up).

The Niigata incident brought all of these feelings to the fore. People spoke of their own trauma, while others celebrated efforts to make the situation better for their kids. Some Twitter users tried to think up ways to stop bullying — such as fighting back — while others argued that violence of all forms should be avoided. Naturally, plenty of online Sherlocks tried to figure out the names of the people responsible for this specific case of violence.

While leaving it up to random people on Twitter to solve cases is probably not a viable solution moving forward, the internet is helping to move the general discussion on bullying in Japan in a way traditional platforms rarely do. Besides being another example of social media shining a light on wrongdoings, a number used this incident as a way to remind others that bullying should be considered a crime and not simply brushed off. Moreover, getting the message beyond school grounds is vital to stopping it. This topic has been written about extensively on the web before, with one sociologist writing an essay on how schools feel like their own self-contained worlds, and that often stops efforts from outside.

However, the Niigata case shows that maybe this attitude is changing beyond the internet, as the police are actually involved and the school didn’t try to cover anything up. Although erasing bullying once and for all might be impossible, social media in Japan is offering a space for empathy and applying pressure on everyone to call out violence against others.