Societywide Effort Needed to Address School Bullying


Bullying at schools in Japan has become harder to identify as students are often harassed through social-networking sites like Line. The author looks at the approaches necessary to protect children and students from becoming victims.

Prominent Bullying Cases Spark New Legislation

Four years have passed since the Diet enacted a law to counter bullying in schools. A number of incidents led to this 2013  law. The first of these occurred in 1986, when a junior high student in Tokyo committed suicide after being bullied by classmates, who taunted the student in such ways as by holding a “mock funeral.” The issue of bullying has since been the focus of much attention, but effective methods to counter the problem had not been devised.

The incident that directly led to the new legislation was a case of bullying at a junior high school in Ōtsu, Shiga Prefecture, in 2011, that also led to a student’s suicide. What all of the prominent cases have in common is that the deaths of students were traced to bullying and that the response of schools and boards of education were inadequate. The Ōtsu incident, in particular, was marked by a lack of an organized response and a subsequent attempt to cover up the incident, resulting in strong public criticism of the school.

The enactment of the new law can thus be viewed as a public intervention into an issue of a personal nature that, up to now, has been left in the hands of students and schools. It was a recognition that preventing bullying was a goal that would require the efforts of society as a whole. However, overemphasizing the role of adults in preventing bullying overlooks the important role that young people themselves can and should play in solving the problem. To be effective, the law must strike a fine balance between enabling children to play a proactive role in resolving their own conflicts and leaving room for adults to get involved when necessary.

Under the new law, schools are required to:

  1. Formulate a fundamental policy on preventing bullying
  2. Create an effective organization to prevent bullying
  3. Take appropriate measures for prevention, early detection, and active engagement

The new law reflects the need for a qualitative change in antibullying policies, such as ensuring that the response to serious incidents (including background research) is fair and impartial and pursues the truth, even when facts that may be embarrassing for the school or board of education are revealed.

Revising Antibullying Policies

During the 2015 academic year, there were 224,540 reported cases bullying in Japan at elementary, junior high, and high schools, as well as at schools for students with special needs (compared to 188,072 cases the previous year)—a serious situation in which there are 16.4 cases of bullying per 1,000 students.(*1) There has been no end to cases of students skipping school or ending their own lives due to bullying. The new law included a provision for a review to be conducted after three years. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) convened the Council on Antibullying Measures—of which I am a member—to discuss the current status of the law’s implementation, and in November 2016 the body indicated a future direction for responses to bullying.

The main issues discussed by the council were the following:

  1. Clarify the law’s definition of what constitutes signs of bullying
  2. Reconfirm the significance of the fundamental policy on preventing school bullying
  3. Ensure the creation of effective organizations to counter bullying and the sharing of information
  4. Enhance measures to prevent and promptly detect bullying
  5. Clarify the definition of what constitutes an end to bullying
  6. Strengthen coordination with parents and the community
  7. Clarify what constitutes a serious incident

In addition, the council called on educators to position suicide prevention and the response to bullying as top priorities in their daily tasks and to give full attention to consultations or complaints from students so as to protect them.

Focusing on the Perspective of Bullied Children and Students

Next I would like to discuss some of the key issues that arose during the review of antibullying measures with regard to the sharing of information and developing an organized response.

There has not been an adequate awareness at schools of the legal definition of bullying. This has resulted in differences between how bullying is understood by individual schools and educators, which in turn has generated confusion about how to identify and respond to the phenomenon. The key elements of bullying under the law are described as “an action that has a mental or physical impact on the student, resulting in mental or physical suffering for the victim.” This definition focuses on the perspective of the person who is subjected to bullying.

Because this is a very broad way of understanding bullying, it diverges from the common understanding of bullying, which considers such factors as the physical strength of the bully, intention, and duration. So there are cases that arise that are not viewed as bullying even though they correspond to the legal definition. Training at schools and elsewhere is being conducted to raise teachers’ understanding of the legal definition by looking at concrete examples, thereby encouraging them to view things from the victim’s perspective and to become aware of even slight cases of bullying at an early stage.

Needless to say, antibullying measures must effectively identify and resolve cases of bullying. The fact that more cases are being reported by schools (educators), households (guardians), and the community should be regarded in a positive way as reflecting their increased awareness of the seriousness of the problem and as leading to greater openness and the sharing of information.

Schools Need to Rethink Their Own Policies

The fundamental policy schools are called on to formulate in addressing bullying is more of an action plan than policy. The important thing is to establish objectives for bullying countermeasures, set up annual plans for the implementation of preventive initiatives, and evaluate schools according to how well they meet those goals. Encouraging the active involvement of students in planning, discussing, and implementing anti-bullying measures as a part of the school curriculum—such as through classes on ethics, human rights, and the law—is believed to be effective in preventing bullying.

What is crucial in formulating and revising schools’ fundamental policies is to listen to the views of the students themselves and their parents while also working with the local community and relevant organizations and adopting a sincere stance toward evaluating the results and issues regarding initiatives at one’s own school. Educators must learn from one another during in-school training workshops to gain a common understanding of their school’s bullying policies. Schools should use such events as an opportunity to reexamine their own standards for student guidance and the premises underlying those standards. Workshops on bullying can thus lead to “soul searching” that can raise the strength of each school.

Cooperation with the Community and Outside Organizations

The following three aspects can be pointed to as key characteristics of bullying in Japan:

  1. Many cases take the form of communication-related psychological bullying, such as insulting, harassing, or ignoring someone
  2. Bullying often occurs within the classroom (such as during breaks)
  3. The bully and victim are often classmates

The fact that bullying in Japan is generally not physical poses a challenge for teachers and others in promptly detecting the problem, caring for the victim, and admonishing the bully. When bullying occurs, many teachers will assume that they were personally responsible, discouraging the sharing of the phenomenon for fear that their guidance will be judged as having been inadequate. The difficulty of identifying bullying has recently increased as it now frequently takes place on the Internet through Line, Twitter, and other social-networking channels, where students are slandered, ridiculed, or ostracized by classmates. In such cases, bullying becomes almost impossible for schools to detect.

The harder it is to see, moreover, the more severe it tends to become. When signs actually appear, therefore, bullying must be treated as a schoolwide issue, rather than dealing with it on a class-by-class basis. This requires each educator to be aware of the responsibility of reporting and sharing information on bullying to the organization the school has set up to counter bullying. On that basis, the organization needs to clearly indicate the methods and channels for sharing information and work with the school leadership to create an open organization and avoid leaving individual teachers to deal with the issue.

In order for the organization to function properly, it is vital to for members to have a good understanding of each other and to build cooperative relationships so that their respective strengths can be leveraged and weaknesses covered. The needs of a bullied student should not be dealt with by just one teacher but through organizational support in order to achieve a more effective response.

Moreover, preventing bullying should not just be the task of the school itself. In response to the wishes of parents, the school should tap the resources in the community, building cooperative ties with related organizations in the fields of healthcare, welfare, and legal affairs. This is premised on the awareness that the danger posed by bullying is a social problem. The persons involved need to be in close, regular communication with one another so that they can broaden their perspectives.

By taking an organized approach to issues that individual teachers have had to struggle with on their own up to now, and by involving the community and related organizations in addressing problems that have been the sole responsibility of schools, I think it will become possible to make life easier for students and teachers and create schools where bullying does not occur.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 2, 2017. Banner photo: Ōtsu Mayor Koshi Naomi (right) offers a silent prayer at city hall on October 11, 2016, for the eighth-grader who committed suicide five years earlier. © Jiji. )

(*1) ^ Statistics based on the “2016 Survey on Issues Related to Guidance Provided on the Problem Behavior of Children and Students” published by MEXT.

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