November 14, 2006

The Japanese High School

Upperdate: the London Times even has taken up the story. Hat tip to Trans-Pacifica Radio for the link. Japan Probe also has more.
This quote is particularly disturbing:
...said Yukiko Nishihara, who runs a suicide prevention centre in Tokyo."We have fewer phone calls from children. They think there is no point of consulting the adults about their troubles."
The London Times article puts a slightly different slant on the problem: the article focuses on the anonymous letters sent to the Education Ministry, and asks
Are the letters genuine cries for help or mischievous hoaxes? Is the publicity saving lives, or encouraging copycat suicides? And when is the daily tally of deaths going to stop? In schools across the country the atmosphere is close to hysteria.

My 17-year-old son's initial response to the spate of suicides was that the media are making too much of it. Perhaps he feels the media frenzy might encourage suicides or copycat letters and hoaxes.

The Times article quotes some of the anonymous letters, and the quotes make it clear that suicide is a strong and clear message of blame. In Japan, which has a tradition of suicide as an honourable act, and where direct confrontation is pretty much taboo, a suicide can be a final attempt to bring the guilty party to realize the true and awful extent and effect of their aggression or thoughtless behaviour, and leave them with the heavy (so hope the victims) responsibility of the suicide's death for the rest of their lives. Talk about guilt-tripping!

In a slightly different context (quitting jobs), some older Japanese have expressed to me their surprise and a degree of contempt for younger Japanese who quit jobs at the first spot of trouble (a disagreement with a colleague or some harsh words from a superior). One of my students has stopped coming to school pretty much altogether, A call to his mother revealed that he has been upset about something that one teacher said to me, but it isn't clear which teacher, or what was said, or indeed if that is the (main) reason for the young man to pretty much quit school this semester. What he said to me was that he had some psychological difficulty, which I took to mean a problem relating to someone or some people ("problems with human relations" must rank as the #1 headache for the majority of people in Japan).

Update: In case anyone thinks bullying and silence are unique to Japan, read this BBC article on the subject. And Anti-Bullying Week starts next week (November 20th) in the UK, sponsored in part by the Anti-Bullying Alliance.

I just finished reading the 2001 book The Japanese High School by Japanese sociologist Shoko Yoneyama, who was a Featured Speaker at JALT's National Convention (I was unfortunately unable to attend her talk).



It's particularly topical in the sad light of the tragic spate of suicides among high school (junior and senior) students in Japan.



It's one of the best books in English on the subject to date. It has a tendency towards uncritical sympathy towards the victims (which is understandable; some of the stories are just horrific), and although the book uses data comparing Japanese with Australian high schools, the focus is very much on Japan. The book mentions the dominant discourses on "school refusers" (toukou-kyohi登校拒否), but does not give voice to the large number who pass through Japanese high school not only unscathed but with positive experiences.



That said, I think her analysis as to why nothing significant ever gets done about bullying in schools is pretty close the mark: because school culture itself is deeply implicated in this kind of behaviour. Yoneyama quotes a high school student who wrote in an essay on how to stop "ijime" (which Yoneyama distinguishes from bullying in that Japanese ijime is almost always group bullying): "As long as not everyone is all the same, ijime will never be stamped out." She states that school bullying is over-conformism, and thus teachers and schools generally are implicated.



The book deals with bullying, school refusers, and the "culture" of resistance and silence in Japanese high schools. Yoneyama includes a wealth of anecdotal material translated from the Japanese press, academic articles, and books and articles written by high school students themselves. Indeed her main motivation for writing the book was to give students a voice.



Despite being 5 years old, the book is still very topical. She predicts that the trend of increased numbers of bullying cases and decreased visibility (i.e. bullying will continue, intensified, underground) seems chillingly borne out by recent events.





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