Beating the Bullies: Tackling ijime in Japan

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I’m a big fan of the way Japanese people conduct themselves and deal with others. Their kindness, perseverance, dedication, sense of community and self-discipline are all traits that the rest of the world would do well to observe and follow.

However, there is a darker side to the Japanese psyche and it plays out in classrooms and workplaces across the country on a daily basis. In all my years here, I have noticed on the few occasions when someone stands out from the crowd or is somehow different — be it because of appearance, race or disability — a pack mentality can quickly emerge amongst their peers. This is not just a classroom phenomenon, either. I’ve seen it in my working life, too, and it can be a significant cause of stress.

The Japanese call it “ijime.” You and I probably know it more commonly as bullying.

I was bullied at school for several years. Occasionally, it was physical but most of the time it was psychological. And from my own experience, mental and verbal abuse is far more damaging in the long term than the corporal abuse. You may disagree on this after all everyone is different. I hope you’ve never had to what I and others went through, but I realize that statistically speaking, chances are many of you have.

In Japan, the manner of bullying I’ve witnessed in schools seems to run along a clear gender divide. With occasional exceptions, of course, boys tend to use physical threats and intimidation whereas girls take a far more verbal and emotional approach to bullying. The advent of social media and communication apps such as Line and Facebook has only amplified this. As teachers, we have the responsibility to confront and stop ijime where we see it happening. You do need to keep in mind differing cultural norms when deciding when — or if — you should step in.

For example, Japanese junior high and elementary school boys love to engage in play fighting, wrestling and other similar activities. If you walk into a classroom and there appears to be a scrum of bodies throwing themselves about on the floor, don’t automatically assume it’s a real fight.

Your Japanese teacher of English (JTE) may better understand what’s going on in these situations and you should, in the first instance, discuss any initial concerns with them. However, there are times — either through a lack of awareness or, sadly, an occasional willful ignorance — when our colleagues choose not to notice bullying in the classroom.

In Japan, the manner of bullying I’ve witnessed in schools seems to run along a clear gender divide.

In 11 years of teaching, on perhaps three or four occasions, I’ve witnessed obvious bullying going on in my classroom while my colleague chose to look the other way.

This is where you as an individual have to make a judgment call.

Stepping in and stopping the bullying is one option. Another option is speaking directly to the JTE in front of the students and saying something like: “Shouldn’t we do something about that?” The third option is to ignore it yourself and hope it settles down in its own time.

Option No. 3 was never an acceptable choice for me. In most cases, I would try option No. 2 first and if I didn’t get a suitable response then I would personally do something to stop the victim being attacked. Now, this is a personal choice, one shaped by my own past as a victim myself. It has caused trouble with managers before. I believe that on at least one occasion a manager, who himself was a bully of sorts, used it as an excuse not to renew my contract.

Like most bullies, he was a fundamentally weak individual whose only means of validation was to harass and intimidate those he saw as beneath him.

In hindsight, in the same set of circumstances, I would do it again. I stood between the victim and the attackers, creating a physical barrier, all the while politely but firmly asking the students to sit down. I kept my hands by my sides throughout.

Usually, when the bullies realize they aren’t going to get past me, they sit down. For the time being at least, the victim is safe. Of course, I am fortunate to have the physical presence necessary to do this. You may be different. At no time should you do anything that you feel compromises your personal safety. Raise the alarm and call for other teachers to help you if you feel it’s necessary.

As teachers, we have the responsibility to confront and stop ijime where we see it happening.

In the context of adults, bullying in Japan tends to more likely take on the form of what is known colloquially as “power harassment.” This occurs when a person in a position of authority — a manager or a direct superior — uses their position of authority to purposefully make life more difficult for a subordinate.

For example, removing a specific staff member from important projects, ridiculing or rejecting their ideas, giving that person an unsustainable workload and (most irritating for me, personally) dumping a pile of work on their desk two minutes before finishing time and casually saying: “Oh, could you get that done today before you go home?”

Again, like all bullies, the best way to handle power harassment is with a firm hand. One of the unfortunate character traits that many Japanese seem to have is a certain level of meekness when it comes to confronting people who abuse their power. Sadly, in the Japanese working world, it seems there are two types of people: those who abuse others and those who receive the abuse.

As a foreign worker, however, this can work to your advantage. Your would-be bully at the office has probably been getting away with this type of behavior for several years and, as such, will not be prepared for any kind of pushback.

Let’s take the dumping-work-on-your-desk-two-minutes-before-the-end-of-the-day incident as an example.

My response when this happened was to smile and say calmly but firmly: “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m leaving now. Had you let me know about this a few hours ago, perhaps I could have helped you. Oh well, good luck with that.”

Bullies, be they children or adults, do what they do to provoke a reaction. Knowing that they are getting to you gives them further fuel for their cruelty. By smiling, you turn it back on them. You make them angry, you make them uncomfortable and if they eventually lose the plot and start ranting and raving. Then you can then simply look to your manager and say: “They seem a bit stressed, you might want to have a talk with them.”

Bullies, be they children or adults, do what they do to provoke a reaction.

Passive-aggressive? Yes. Cruel? Perhaps. But in Japanese society — where a calm demeanor can open an innumerable amount of doors for you — forcing your bully to lose their temper is the best way to shut them down quickly and effectively.

As in the classroom, if this behavior persists, report it to management. If their response is ineffective, then that is where it’s probably a good idea to join a labor union or consult the local labor standards board. In any case, do not suffer in silence. Bullies get away with what they do because we remain silent. Speak out, confront and seek support.

Have you ever witnessed bullying in your classroom or workplace? How did you deal with it? Let us know in the comments below.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • Nat says:

    Hey I just wanted to state that I appreciate you shining light on the bullying that does happen in the workplace. I don’t work in Japan myself but I have heard of the harassment that happens and never understood why a respectable country would subject their employees to that treatment. You’ve given me a better understanding of the situation, now knowing that it’s just as common as everywhere else. Thank you for the tips as I will consider using them in any future confrontation I may face.

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