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.