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How to Protect Your Students from Bullying in the Japanese Classroom

We have a duty as educators to protect those under our care.

By 7 min read

As anyone who has spent any significant length of time in this wonderful country will tell you, here in Japan the locals do things just a little bit differently. Whilst this has undoubted benefits, such as superior customer service, a collective sense of team work and community spirit, and a warm and humble sense of hospitality, there is sometimes however a darker side.

“Ijime,” or bullying, to give it its most appropriate English translation, is a massive problem here, especially in public elementary and junior high schools. Sadly, such is the Japanese mindset that most victims feel compelled to grin and bear it, rather than ask for help.

First a bit of background. I was bullied when I was at school. As an adult, now, I feel no shame in admitting that. I realized in subsequent years that I was not alone, and in time I have forgiven many of those who acted against me. In a strange way I even came to understand why they did what they did, even if I still could not accept it. Terrible though those experiences were, they did to some degree shape who I have become today.

In Japan, the problem is probably more serious than what I faced back in Scotland. As an English teacher here, I have watched things get out of hand very quickly, with severe consequences for those involved. One possible cause could lie in the group dynamic that permeates not just school life, but Japanese society in general. As they say “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

any deviation from the group way of thinking is not only frowned upon, but sometimes viewed as dangerous and harmful

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Japanese junior high schools, where any deviation from the group way of thinking is not only frowned upon, but sometimes viewed as dangerous and harmful.

One must also remember that due to the rather bizarre way that the Ministry of Education chooses to interpret the law, any form of individually targeted discipline against a student in Japan is deemed unconstitutional and therefore illegal. Detention, suspension, expulsion and other punitive measures we would freely dispense in our countries of origin cannot and do not apply here in Japan.

Sadly, teachers sometimes also aggravate this situation through their own negligence and inaction. I recall one particularly infuriating exchange I had with a Japanese co-worker in the past.

I was trying to explain to her about an incident of bullying I had witnessed during our class, which I mistakenly assumed she hadn’t seen.

“I saw those two boys hitting that other boy,” I said. “We need to do something, it’s not acceptable. He is much smaller than they are, it is bullying”.

Her response was the exact opposite of what I would expect a caring and compassionate human being to say:

“I saw it, but of course I didn’t say anything,” she said dismissively.

“But, don’t we have a duty to protect our students?” I fired back.

“Well, there’s nothing we can do,” she added, “He is weak. He needs to learn to be stronger, to fit in with the group. It’s his own fault that he gets bullied.”

Her attitude disgusted me, but it certainly wasn’t unique.

To the best of my ability, during my subsequent classes with that group, as much as I could, I put my foot down. I quickly stepped in, confronted and stopped any aggressive behavior when I saw it. But as an ALT, I only saw this class once every two weeks, my impact was minimal. The boy soon stopped coming to school. I heard about six months later that his parents had removed him from the school completely. Wherever he is now, I hope he found some sanctuary.

So with limited time, limited powers and occasionally belligerent coworkers, what can we, as mere ALTs, do to improve the situation?

Like so many other similar issues in Japan, a certain level of passion and enthusiasm, tempered with pragmatism and cultural sensitivity, is what’s required. Getting your coworkers onside, even if you disagree with their views, is also a big help.

So, you’re in the classroom and you see two or more students physically hitting each other. What do you do?

First off, don’t fly off the handle right away. Remember that Japanese kids, especially boys, are much more physical than in other countries. Even right into junior high school, boys will regularly indulge in wrestling and “play-fighting”. Be aware that this may not have any malicious intent. Nonetheless, such behavior is still unacceptable during class time. Politely but firmly tell the students to stop it.

If the situation escalates and it becomes clear that this isn’t just a play around, stop the class and insist that your Japanese colleague stop the students who are fighting. Of course you need to be sensitive to the fact that many teachers, especially smaller, female teachers will be very reluctant to physically confront violent students. In this case, ask them to call the teachers’ room for additional support.

Most schools have a designated “discipline teacher” whose job it is to deal with these kinds of things. In schools with more serious disciplinary issues, they may even have teachers patrolling the corridors during class time in readiness for just this sort of thing. When you start at a new school, make yourself aware of the procedures in this regard as soon as possible.

As in other instances of bad behavior, correct modeling and rewarding of good behavior is often just as effective as cracking down on bad behavior. Tell the students why bullying is wrong. Explain to them that, since the health of the group is most important, if any individual in that group is unhappy, it hurts everyone.

Above all, Japanese people value group harmony. As a teacher, you can use this to your advantage. Remind them that they are a class, and everyone in that class has an equal responsibility to look out for each other. In most classes, the majority of students will sincerely take this on board. After all, the importance of the group dynamic is something that is hammered into them from day one of elementary school.

Another possible solution, subject to your school’s approval, may be a comment box. This should be placed either outside or near to the teacher’s room, but ideally in a place not too conspicuous. In this box, students should be encouraged to write down anything in school that they are concerned about. Not only bullying, but if they feel exam stress, if they are having difficulty in a particular subject or even if they are just a bit tired or under the weather.

Ensure that the box is emptied at least once a week and that all comments are passed onto the school counsellor for follow up. In many of the schools I have worked in, home room teachers implement this, or a similar procedure, in each of their own classes.

In these circumstances it is also very important to look after your own mental and emotional well-being. I recently gave a seminar to my fellow ALTs on how to handle stressful and difficult situations in the classroom. One of my closing statements, which I feel also has great relevance here was this: “Remember, you are not Superman, you cannot save everyone.”

We have a duty as educators to protect those under our care. However, at the same time we do not have the same authority or protections that fully-fledged teachers in Japan do.
Ultimately it is your call how and where you choose to confront bullying in your classroom. Some schools give you a free reign to run classes how you see fit, others will greatly limit your input.

Above all, you need to respect the role your school wants you to play. However, what I would say is, please don’t just ignore bullying where you see it. When you ignore bullying, you are giving it tacit approval. Step in, stop the behavior from happening, and perhaps even just for that 40 or 50 minutes of class time, you will give the victim some much needed respite. Believe me when I say, from personal experience, even just that little bit of breathing space can make a huge difference.

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  • Jip Jipjip says:

    Bullying comes in all forms, and there are many idiots who like to make it harder for others to live. (People will be surprised how some sweet faces almost kill their classmates by “accidents.”) It is very difficult for instructors or teachers to intervene in some cases, because the more someone reached in, the more serious those cases can get, because they’ll start a harsher bullying in secret. In many cases, the teachers can only watch and redirect the conflict else where. Sometime, the teacher got picked instead, and there are cases when the teacher WAS the one bullying the students. Then there are cases of work place bullying… and so on and on…

    Most of the time, bullies doesn’t know they are one. They don’t take their actions as harmful, but righteous. Some victims may not even know they were bullied, so they fail to stand up when there are chances. Pointing that out would put a stop to some, but may escalate others.

    People who got to this point in life without getting bullied, and took no part in bullying, count your blessing.

  • Mekashikuta says:

    I just saw one Japanese TV show for kids and they used one song to teach kids you can say about bullying. There were different animals and others who were singing it was laughing and critizing that one picked animal because it stinks or do something what others don’t and they show at him by fingers and told him that hi is disgusting and so on….just seems like thats just what they teach people since their childhood…if anyone is different, he will be bullyied…that’s how that seemed…so kind of no wonder that they are not trying to stop it…

  • scuttlepants says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. As a teacher it was a good reminder that although we have zero tolerance where I am from, it may not be the same in Japan. It was an interesting reminder of the different (and limited) options/ support ALTs have. I now consider myself quite lucky to have both the power and support that I do to crack down on bullying!

  • shonangreg says:

    You can facilitate the conversation too. If you have another teacher on the room, have them do something with everyone else. Somehow get the rest of the students to focus elsewhere as much as feasible, then talk to the students involved in the bullying.

    Ask the one being bullied how he/she feels. Ask if they tell this to their tormentors. If they haven’t been, that more clearly becomes their personal challenge, and no one will see your as having intervened. You can catalyze their character development by encouraging them to speak up for themselves. They will lose no respect from the other students in this add you are not simply shielding them.

    Also ask the bullies what they think they are trying to accomplish. If they say the victim is just weak and invites such teasing, then the prior paragraph addressed this. This would be the minimal intervention, in my experience.

    If they are teasing because the student is gay, effeminate, butchy, foreign, disabled, etc., then it is an opportunity to tell the students their actions cannot help (other than driving the unfamiliar away). Some things can’t be changed and few of us are smart enough to really judge others. Use that as a teaching moment. Challenge them to see diversity as something they shy away from. The bullies are being weak here. They need their character to develop more deeply. There may be other students who would be targeted later for the same nonsense reasons.

    If we just defend the target of a bullying victim, though, we do risk making them look even weaker. I think there was more wisdom is your co-teacher’s response than you realized, Liam. She might have been able to think outside the box and actually encourage the development she judged was needed, but that is asking a lot.

  • John Hernlund says:

    This is a good lesson that applies to every aspect of society. I’m glad you are teaching kids that it is possible for a group to be coherent and harmonious, with all the benefits that come from that, by mutually supporting one another instead of tearing each other down. School bullying is a child’s introduction to broader problems in their society, which has numerous expressions. For example, it manifests as “power harassment” in the work place (this can be far worse than what you see in the classroom). Outside the work place there are many expressions of public shame, such as social pressure against “devil wives” (aka working mothers). In practically every professional field in Japan there is often intense jealously, factionalism, rivalry, and a power structure that is too often dominated by a small number of bullies whose actions are selfish, destructive, and extremely childish when viewed from an outside perspective. This system is self-serving for these bullies. It is sad to see a society with so much potential for positive unity instead engage in attacking one another and tearing one another down. This is not just Japan, but applies everywhere in the world.

  • Canbuhay says:

    Why are they bullying the Filipina in the picture?

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