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Bullying in Japan: Insights from Experts (Part One)

2020-10-09

Bullying.

It’s the subject of many classic Hollywood movies (The Karate Kid, anyone?), and a timely topic in Japan. But unlike the forms of bullying you’ll read about on the front page of a newspaper or see on the big screen, it is more often than not much more covert. In Japanese culture, specifically, bullying can be more difficult to pinpoint. Which, in turn, makes it harder for parents who want to help their children. 

To get a better understanding of what bullying might look like, and how parents can help their children navigate the issue, we spoke with two experts!

Sachiko Horiguchi, Ph. D., is an anthropologist with a focus on youth mental health and education. Dariusz Skowronski, Ph. D., is a practicing counselor and professor who specializes in issues of cross-cultural and behavioral psychology (we also spoke with Dariusz before for tips on schooling for mixed-heritage children!). Both shared some great insight for parents on the topic of bullying. This week, we'll give an overview of bullying. In part two, we'll share some tips for parents to use!

What is Bullying?

Bullying comes in many forms. While it certainly can be physical, we’ll primarily be talking about much less overt forms. In Japan, where there is a culture that shies away from direct confrontations, bullying is more commonly expressed as passive-aggressive behaviors. It’s not likely that your child will be pushed into lockers or held upside down as bullies steal his lunch money.

Both Sachiko and Dariusz point out that it may often look like ostracization (for instance, everyone else in class is invited to a birthday party and your child isn’t) rather than proactive harassment. Violence can of course occur, but bullying for children in Japan is usually a more insidious issue than visibly cruel. 

Sachiko emphasizes that even bullies themselves may not fit our preconceptions. 

“‘Bad kids’ are not the only ones who can be bullies,” she says. Even within groups of “good” children - good grades, well-mannered - group dynamics can unintentionally result in bullying behavior. Along these lines, Dariusz also believes that aspects of bullying are inherent in human nature.

“We talk about how to ‘stop’ bullying,” he says. But based on research, hierarchy-building is natural at all ages. “The reality is that you can’t get rid of bullying. But you can help guide which forms it takes.” Parents might not be able to insulate their children from experiencing bullying behavior, but they can help to give their children skills to avoid the most negative outcomes (more on that later). 

Who Gets Bullied And Who Does the Bullying?

Everyone is capable of being both! As Sachiko and Dariusz have both pointed out, bullying behaviors are natural and found in all populations. It certainly isn’t unique to one type of person or country. But while nature may not discriminate, nurture can certainly play a role in bullying.

Children who may not have had opportunities while young to socialize with peers and navigate those interactions may be particularly vulnerable to bullying as they get older. Without a framework for relationships with other children their age, they may struggle to establish relationships once they enter school. Children who appear different from the majority in one way or another - a different race, a different gender, differently abled - may also find themselves targets. 

Children who have grown up in homes with bullying behavior modeled by adults are more likely to display those same behaviors among their peers. That’s not to say that all bullies come from homes where bullying is the norm, but it can be an indicator. Additionally, cultural values may encourage bullying. For instance, in Japan, conforming with the group is prioritized over individuality, which may result in bullying if someone’s behavior is seen as a threat to the harmony of the whole.

It is also not always other children who do the bullying. While there is much progress being made in Japan around institutionalized forms of bullying, there are still teachers who might subscribe to outdated modes of classroom management. This can not only result in bullying behaviors from the teacher but may also encourage the other students to follow suit. 

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