Bullying—is it insoluble, human nature being what it is? Or are school authorities simply too busy, too pressured, too spineless, too concerned with their schools’ image, to face it squarely?
The suicide last October in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, of a 13-year-old second-year junior high school boy who had been relentlessly bullied by classmates while teachers looked the other way reminds us how little progress has been made over the past 30 years. “Schools,” says Chiba University education scholar Daisuke Fujikawa, “are not learning the lessons of the past.”
The education ministry officially recognizes some 77,000 “ijime” (bullying) cases a year – “the tip of the iceberg,” says Josei Seven (Aug 9). Should bullying be made a crime? In raising the question, the magazine reviews some of the tortures that apparently drove the boy to jump to his death from his family’s 14-story apartment building last October. They include routine beatings, the forced eating of dead bees, forced shoplifting, and, most notoriously, “suicide practice.” It certainly sounds criminal on the face of it, and Josei Seven detects a groundswell of feeling that the full force of the law is the only language kids who go in for that sort of thing would understand.
A counterargument is raised by Kinokuni Children’s Village Free School principal Shinichiro Hori. A “free school” is an alternative facility for kids who, whether because of bullying or for other reasons, are unable to cope with regular school. “Kids who bully others do it because their hearts are disturbed,” Hori writes. “With society foisting its ideals on them – good marks, for example – they can’t breathe. Their hearts don’t get enough oxygen. So you can punish them, or threaten them, and it might have some effect, but it doesn’t go to the root of the problem.”
What would? Nothing short of a fundamental reform of education, in his view.
“More important than anything is that children should be happy, absorbed, interested. For that to happen, teachers have to be passionate about what they do. But as it is, they’re too burdened with administrative responsibilities. Teachers need to be free to use their imaginations. Without a radical change in the top-down approach to education, I don’t see how the problem can be solved.”
Three boys in particular are considered ringleaders in the torments endured by the victim. Two have moved; the third remains in Otsu but has stopped going to school. From acquaintances, Josei Seven hears the three show no sign of repentance or reflection, no sense of having done wrong.
School kids tormenting each other must be as old as school, but “ijime” as a social problem – ordinary rough-housing getting seriously out of hand and drawing national attention – dates to the February 1986 suicide of a 13-year-old Tokyo boy who hanged himself in a shopping center washroom. He left a suicide note which mentioned, among other tortures he endured, “mock funerals” – complete with flowers and incense – with himself as mock corpse. The similarity to the “suicide practice” in Otsu 26 years later is unmistakable – a reflection of how little has changed.