Friday, November 16, 2007

Bullying in Japan on the Rise?

A quick note on a depressing piece of news from TIME. Depressing, yes, because of the seriousness of the issue, but also because it reveals the depths to which the Japan desk has to stoop these days to be noticed. To wit:

(TOKYO) — The number of bullying cases reported in schools across Japan has risen sharply after officials broadened the term's definition following a series of student suicides linked to bullying.

A total of 124,898 cases of bullying were reported at elementary, junior high and high schools in the year ending in March 2007, up from 20,143 cases a year earlier, the ministry said.

A ministry official attributed the sharp rise to the wider definition of bullying and to the inclusion of private and national government-run schools in the total. Previous surveys only included schools run by local governments.

That’s like saying the chimpanzee population is on the rise if you include humans in the count. I don’t think that my 5th Grade elementary school teacher would have let me get away with that. I think that she would have wondered whether the authorities were hiding something and told me to go and ask the Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture, Science and Technology to come up with the corresponding data for FY2006 (2006 Apr. – 2007 Mar.), or the portion of the FY2006 data under FY2005 reporting requirements. In fact, in one area where there was continuity (i.e. the statistic already included national and private schools), the number of suicides rose dramatically from 103 (down, by the way from 126 in FY2004) to 171. But that’s about as profound as you can get from the data available here and here. To go beyond that, you have to actually do some searching, ask questions, demand answers.

To ask that a wire service do that may be a little too much. But somebody slapped that headline on that article, and TIME allowed it to go on its web site.


Shura said...

It doesn't matter if bullying is reported more, but what's being done about. Japan is a nation of "Shikata ga nai". They'd rather just take it and suffer rather than stand up to some of their serious glaring problems. Either Japan needs some serious social-cultural reforms, or their nation is doomed to allow their youth to suffer from the deprivations of their own citizenry.

Jun Okumura said...


Thank you for your comment. You’re right, what’s being done is the real story, but a wire service can’t be expected as a matter of course to go that far. As for “shikata ga nai”=not standing up to its problems as the root of the problem, I’m not convinced that Japan is unique in that respect. I think that I can even give US examples of gross neglect, punctured by intermittent, mostly ineffectual stabs at patchwork resolution.

Speaking specifically to the case in point, I know far too little about education in Japan to speak with any certainty, but here are a few personal observations based on what little experience I have:

Higher education is a neatly tiered pyramid of accredited universities and colleges supplemented by vocational schools. The rest of the school system, formal and informal, has increasingly been subordinated to this superstructure. This has been the main driving force behind the flight to private schools beginning with high school and spreading to middle school, and the permeation of the juku (cram schools, which often provide a more pleasurable experience for their attendants than the formal schools). This has resulted in the deterioration of the public school system, which has created a vicious cycle resulting, in some cases, in unmanageable classes and even schools. Thus, I think that any reform of the public school system will be largely ineffectual unless something is done at the top and the incentive structure in the public school educators is changed accordingly. There are efforts being made to curb bullying, and I hope that they work. But without changes in the underlying framework, the issue will not be resolved to any level of satisfaction. (I qualify “resolved” by “level of satisfaction” because, let’s face it, bullying is a natural part of growing up, and will not go away, anywhere, any time.)

Incidentally, Prime Minister Abe is mostly known over there as the guy who brought patriotism to education (not that there’s anything wrong with that, and the outcome, compared to US schools, is quite modest). But his early thinking, however rudimentary, showed awareness of the real problems, and the thrust of his reform efforts – whatever the eventual outcome – reflected that far more than it did the politically more sensitive patriotism issue (which the DPJ also happened to support in principle). However, I think that circumstances and his own unfitness for leadership dissipated his political capital well before he could leave much of a legacy.