Public high schools in Iwate Prefecture have an institutionalized hazing system associated with ouenka renshuu (“cheerleading practice”) in which “cheerleaders” use yelling, threats, humiliation and physical violence to terrify first-year students into absolute obedience and force them to sing a large number of school cheers as loudly as they can with convincingly sincere body language and facial expressions.

At some schools the cheerleaders punch, kick and hit the freshmen into obedience with kendo swords. Some of these “obedience” rituals appear to have nothing to do with cheerleading. All students are required to participate in these rituals, which usually last around two hours per day for the first two weeks of school. The purpose given by school administrators for these practices is to teach gaman (fighting spirit, hierarchal relationships, obedience to authority, group cooperation and, especially, respect for tradition).

During these ceremonies, first-year students are angered and frightened, sometimes to tears, yet many participating teachers and senior students laugh at them. Teachers have told me that some students drop out of school during the first few weeks specifically because of ouenka renshuu. What disturbs me most about these rituals is their effectiveness in permanently changing the personalities of dissenting students, whose parents may also disagree with the tradition.

Fear and violence are used to force students to enthusiastically sing school songs. In Tokyo, teachers have been punished for not singing “Kimigayo.” In light of the recent education reforms, would it be such a big step further to use fear and violence to force students to sing Kimigayo or participate enthusiastically in politically motivated “patriotic”-behavior requirements?

eric larson

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