As part of the Education Ministry’s attempts to look like it’s doing something about the recent spate of school bullying-related suicides (Yomiuri’s English edition is doing a semi-interesting special on the topic), Minister Bunmei Ibuki has written a letter to every single school in the country urging youngsters to stop bullying their “friends.” Here’s the brief letter in translation:
A Request from the Minister of Education, Sports, Science and Technology
Dear kids, who have a future to look forward to:
It is shameful to bully friends and classmates who are in a weak position.
It is cowardly to bully your friends along with others.
You might be in a position to be bullied. Rather than wonder in the future why you did such a shameful thing, you should immediately stop the bullying that you are carrying out presently.
To you who are suffering from bullying: you certainly are not alone.
Rather than suffer by yourself, get the courage to talk about the fact that you are being bullied to anyone, whether it be your father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, a sibling, a school teacher, or a friend at school or from your neighborhood. You’ll feel better if you talk about it. I’m sure everyone will help you out.
December 27, 2006
Bunmei Ibuki, Minister of Education, Sports, Science and Technology
The bullying issue has been a political football for years, but the recent spate of bullying-related suicides (including letters to the minister threatening suicide, though those letters have not been validated as far as I can tell) made bullying the dominant education-related issue during the fall extraordinary Diet session and crowded out the government’s promotion of its education reform agenda to the point where the government’s handling of the suicides/threats has become an Upper House election issue. As a result, the education ministry has been desperate to look like it is doing something, with efforts including some ’emergency measures’ to prevent bullying and this letter.
Shukan Asahi reported that Ibuki wrote this letter himself. It sounds sincere enough, but this bullying issue is extremely complicated and each case has its own special characteristics. Much like anti-drug and anti-smoking campaigns in the US, this could easily backfire. I can just imagine this letter being used as material to rank on some poor kid.
To that end, the Japanese media never tire of publicizing bullying horror stories, probably because they are always so compelling. For its part, Yomiuri has run a series looking at bullying cases in detail:
An 18-year-old high school student has decided to live life keeping future goals in mind despite becoming a target of bullying that started after the student became disabled due to a traffic accident. (For personal reasons, the student, who was interviewed by The Yomiuri Shimbun recently, asked that the student’s gender not be disclosed.)
Hit by a car two years ago, the student suffered multiple fractures and hovered between life and death. While the student regained consciousness, the student’s upper body was disabled.
After returning to school, some classmates started making fun of the student’s appearance. They hurled insults at the student, saying, “Look in the mirror!” and hid the student’s textbooks and slippers. In desperation, the student cut the student’s wrists with a razor blade in spring this year. Seeing the blood pumping out of the student’s veins, the student realized, “I’m alive now, though I could have died in the accident.”
Regardless of the political leadership’s cluelessness, the even higher than usual level of attention placed on the bullying issue is apparently pushing schools to take the issue more seriously:
The recent spate of bullying cases–some of which led to suicides–has prompted boards of education around the nation to set their own criteria to identify bullying, aside from the definition laid down by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry.
Most of the new criteria allow more cases to be identified as bullying than that of the ministry; for example, if parents or children consult with a school once in connection with a case of intimidation, it should be counted as bullying.
At least 40 boards of education have made such changes, and some criticized the existing definition of bullying as inadequate for a correct understanding of the real situation.
The ministry’s definition says for a case of intimidation to be recognized as bullying, it must involve a “one-sided physical or psychological attack” by “a stronger perpetrator against a weaker victim,” with the latter experiencing “serious pain and suffering.”
Because of the strong wording in the ministry’s definition, such as “attack” and “serious pain and suffering,” many schools have only recognized very serious cases of intimidation as bullying.
Of course, people are kidding themselves if they think that broadening the definition of bullying will stop it. To trot out a well-worn cliche, Japan is a society of endurance and conformity. The comedy shows are all about smacking around the weird guy, and everyone is expected to “try hard.” The only way to manage such a situation is to keep things from getting out of hand and eliminate the dangerous structural problems (hard-hearted teachers who permit violence or egg people on, weak rules against it, etc). The endless television pleas for peace will get nowhere.
America of course has a serious problem with bullying as well. However, one thing that protects the nerds in the US is a very strong clique culture. If you eat lunch with the other nerds, you feel like less of a loser.
I certainly have no answer for the bullying issue, but when I was a high school student in Japan, I noticed that while there were distinctions between the popular girls, the people in the various sports clubs, etc, I didn’t really see much of a place for the unpopular kids to get together. A few of them used illness as an excuse to skip school for months at a time. Perhaps if there were places outside of the school system where the losers could find ways to express themselves they’d be able to have some sort of hope for the future.