Japanese bullying turns schools into danger zone

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 09, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Toko Bureau

TOKYO -- After months of bullying, a seventh-grader didn't want to sing the same song again for the older schoolmates who had been tormenting him.

So on Jan. 13, he refused. And they killed him.

Nine schoolmates dragged the student, Yuhei Kodama, 13, into a closet, where they beat and kicked him. Then they stuffed him head-down into a rolled-up gym mat. Four hours later, too late to save him, teachers spotted two feet sticking out of the top of the roll.

It's been two years since the Ministry of Education reported that a five-year campaign had reduced Japan's once-rampant school bullying cases to 24,308, compared with 155,066 in 1985.

Still, several times a year someone dies of it. Most recently, five died in four months.

Besides Yuhei Kodama, who lived in a town about 200 miles north of Tokyo, they included:

* A 15-year-old ninth-grader who jumped in front of a train on Japan's northernmost main island, Hokkaido, last Nov. 15 after six months of being beaten in classrooms and forced to shoplift.

* A 17-year-old high school student in Nagano, about 100 miles northwest of Tokyo, who died in school Jan. 8 at the hands of a bully with a knife.

* A 14-year-old boy who died Feb. 2 on the southern island of Okinawa, a day after nine schoolmates beat him for threatening to report that they had bullied him.

* A 13-year-old boy who hanged himself March 2 in the sports activity room of a school in Tochigi, about 50 miles north of Tokyo, after he broke down and cried when schoolmates who had been ganging up on him for months repeatedly forced him to be "it" in a mock game of blind man's bluff.

In most cases, the bullies in these incidents face charges as juveniles.

In a drug-free society that is proud of safe streets and extraordinary student achievement, no one has yet explained why school is so dangerous for some Japanese students.

Typical school bullying cases here involve underachieving pupils going after younger and often high-achieving schoolmates. Many Japanese explain school bullying as a dark face of this society's need for hierarchy, pride in its strongest and disdain, rather than compassion, for its weakest.

But many people who work with bullies and their victims are beginning to question that assumption.

"In the first place, if we classify what types of children will suffer from bullying, we might accept bullying as natural to that kind of people," says psychiatrist Mamoru Tsuchiya, who leads therapy groups for victims who refuse to go to school because of bullies.

"Nowadays, any child might suffer from bullying," he added. "I have one patient who became a target not because she was weak but because she was strong and tried to save a bullying victim."

Dr. Tsuchiya's 14-year-old daughter was bullied repeatedly. As a form of therapy, he had her write down her experiences every day. They will soon be published, along with his comments, in a book to be called "Watashino Ijimerare Daiari," or "My Diary of Being Bullied."

Many victims of bullying -- including his daughter -- are children whose parents stress the Japanese art of "seeing the positive side" in every experience, he said. Parents believe that art will "protect" their children, giving them psychological defenses and social camouflage.

When it became obvious that his daughter was a victim, she tried to deny that what happened was bullying. "In the end, the 'protection' worked against her," he said.

Specialists also question the effects of the Ministry of Education's campaign.

The campaign created pressure that led some principals to report far fewer bullying cases, says Masatoshi Fukuda, chairman of the National Bullying-Prevention Council.

Police who investigated Yuhei Kodama's death felt so strongly on that score that they took a step almost unheard-of in Japan. They publicly accused the principal and several teachers of trying to cover up bullying even after the fatality.

"Japanese shy away from absolutes and try to see two sides," says Toru Wakahoi, a lawyer who has represented several accused bullies. "But violence and bullying are absolutely wrong. With pupils I've represented, schools and parents failed to teach this simple message. The youngsters just didn't see the wrong in what they did."

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