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Japan: High price of conformity

EducationWorld June 17 | EducationWorld

Five months after a tsunami that led to his family’s evacuation from Fukushima, the boy enrolled at a new school in Yokohama. His new classmates were pitiless. They called him “germ boy”. They stole his things. They punched and kicked him and threw him down the stairs; they took him to a “study” room and beat him some more. He was eight years old.

According to Mitsuru Taki of the ministry of education, bullying in other countries tends to involve two or three pupils picking on another. In Japan, in contrast, most cases involve a big portion of a class inflicting insistent psychological (and occasionally physical) torment on a single victim. “Bullies in Japan are not rotten apples,” he says. “It is a group phenomenon,” he says.

There are many reasons behind this idiosyncratic form of bullying. “A characteristic of Japan is that you should not stand out,” argues the head teacher of a secondary school in Tokyo. “Pupils have to lead a collective life when they are at school,” adds Koju Matsubayashi, an official in the anti-bullying department at the ministry. Erika, an 18-year-old who left her school in Tokyo after being bullied, agrees. “I was told by teachers to adapt or quit, so I quit.”

The way Japanese schools are organised adds to the pressure to conform. Children learn in a “homeroom” with teachers of different subjects coming to them. School activities, such as cleaning, eating lunch and studying, are organised in groups. Pupils must often adhere to exact rules about their uniforms, hairstyles and grooming. Individuals who don’t kuuki wo yomu (roughly translated as “read the vibes”) can be shunned by other members of the class.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test run by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, suggests that Japanese students are among the top performers academically. They also have among the lowest truancy rates. But they say they enjoy school less than nearly everyone else. Shoko Yoneyama of the University of Adelaide argues that Japanese schools are “dysfunctional communities”. Teachers rarely help. They are renowned for their pedagogical prowess, especially in maths. But most aren’t trained to spot bullying. 

An anti-bullying law passed in 2013 requires schools to report cases of bullying. It has led to a sharp rise in the number of known cases, from a few thousand a year to 224,450 in 2015. Yet there are suspiciously wide disparities between regions. In 2015, Kyoto prefecture reported 90.6 cases per 1,000 pupils; Saga prefecture, in southern Japan, recorded just 3.5. Taki reckons that even Kyoto underestimates the scale of the abuse.

The law has prodded teachers to report bullying but it has done little to change how they deal with the problem. Bullies are rarely punished: in 2014, there were 188,057 reported cases and just two suspensions. The law also assumes that conformity is the way to stop bullying. It says teachers should “cultivate recognition… among students that they are part of a group”. But some pupils are simply more likely to be victims and need protection — like evacuees.

(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist and Times Higher Education)

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