Bullying in Japan

There’s an early chapter in the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga that describes a bullying incident. First, Yugi is bullied by people he considers his friends—Jonouchi and Honda (er, English names Joey and Tristan, respectively; I was reading a fan translation). Then, after the school bully Ushio sees them picking on Yugi, Ushio takes it upon himself to beat up Jonouchi and Honda. He demands 200,000 yen from Yugi as payment for his “anti-bullying” services. (200,000 yen is approximately 2,000 USD.)

Yugi (the little fool he is) tries to gather enough change to meet Ushio’s demands, but he obviously doesn’t have enough money. His alter-ego eventually takes over and defeats Ushio, thus ending Ushio’s reign (read: driving him insane) and creating a friendship between Yugi, Jonouchi, and Honda. And everyone lives happily ever after.

You know. Sort of.

You know. Sort of.

This is a manga. It’s fiction. And I’m sure you’re tempted to say that being “fiction” means that it’s not real. This situation doesn’t happen in real life.

And how wrong you would be.

The Incident

On a Friday morning in September, the teachers all had a meeting in the staff room. Usually it’s day-to-day stuff that I don’t pay attention to, so I started to tune it out. But then I noticed the difference in tone and atmosphere—this meeting felt tense, and everyone was paying attention (whereas during most morning meetings, everyone kind of spaces out). This meeting was serious business.

I didn’t know what was going on, but I recognized a few words: ijime, okane, gomen nasai, ryoshin, and two students’ names. Ijime means “bullying.” And I knew the two students. I thought they were friends.

When I asked my JTE about it later, she explained what happened. One of the boys on the basketball team wasn’t getting along with the others—she said that he “couldn’t talk to the other boys.” It sounds like the other boys were ignoring him or something, like maybe he didn’t quite fit in with them. It caught me by surprise, because I thought that student would get along with the other basketball kids great. (I love them to death, but they’re all cocky.) The situation escalated when another boy told him that he would introduce him to a girl from another school—for 20,000 yen. (That’s approximately 200 USD.)

escalated quickly

The boy stole the money from his parents, and it seems that someone found out (maybe his parents noticed the money was missing, maybe a teacher caught them at it, I don’t know). On Friday afternoon, both boys’ families came to school for a meeting. The bully’s family apologized for him and returned the money.


I am very disappointed in the bully. Extorting your classmate for money? Really? What are you, some kind of common thug? DISAPPOINTED.

disappointed hercules

The bully is one of the students I have a lot of fun with. But I knew he was a bully. I knew it the moment I saw him. He’s charming and rough and confident. He also has family issues. The perfect formula for a bully. I don’t even know how to express my disappointment in him. I haven’t seen him bully anyone at school, so there’s nothing I can do to discourage him.

I have yelled at another student for being mean. I was sitting with a group of students at lunch, and one of the boys was starting to say some harsh things to another boy at his table. I stopped him when I noticed his tone—“HEY, HEY. Knock it off.”—but who knows if that helped; I didn’t understand what he was saying. I just didn’t like his tone. But that’s all I can do. Tell them to stop.

It doesn’t feel like much.

Japan’s Response to Bullying

At my school, the teachers always refer to the students as “friends.” As in, “Please practice with your friend next to you.” Sometimes they do say “partner,” but I hear a lot of “friend” being thrown around.

I think this is part of a strategy to stop bullying. By saying that all of the students are friends, the teachers think that means the students won’t bully each other. Because friends don’t bully friends, right?


It’s worse when your friends bully you. Always. Friends are people you trust. And when teachers say that all the students are your friends, that makes it all the worse when those “friends” betray you.

Japan’s response to rises in bullying incidents is legislation. I don’t know how more legislation helps—that’s not really going to deter anything. The anti-bullying movements in Japan are really going about it the wrong way. The way people bully others in Japan has deep roots in their cultural mindset, and that’s not easily criticized, broken down, and changed. So I don’t really know how they expect to reduce bullying.

Especially with legislation. What. Yeah, more complicated laws always solve everything.

Cultural Factors in Bullying

Being part of the group is a big deal in Japan, so if you’re different, you’re often bullied. People are bullied in Japan for looking different, for speaking different, for thinking different—if there’s anything different about you, expect to be bullied.

Back in June, I was decorating the English classroom during a free period when a first year class came in to watch a video about bullying. In the video, a girl was being bullied by the other girls in her club (surprise, surprise—it was a basketball team). They called her “irregular.”

I mean that literally. They called her イレギュラー (iregyuraa, or literally the English word “irregular” forced into Japanese pronunciation).

It got to the point where the girl wanted to quit club activities, and she even went to her coach about it. I can’t remember exactly how the coach resolved the problem, but I remember not feeling very satisfied by it.

No one in the class watching the video—not even the teacher—took the video very seriously. Afterwards, they had a “discussion,” in which they mostly named characters and identified the bully and the victim. And then they sort of made fun of the video. It was… disappointing.

There’s a lot of victim-blaming in Japanese bullying. The usual mindset is “Well, if they just tried to fit in, then maybe no one would bully them.” But that’s not exactly fair if it’s something the person can’t control (they way they look, a learning disability), and if it’s the way they think, well, that just squashes out innovative thinking.

I’m going to use another example from a manga: In Fruits Basket, the character Kisa is bullied because she’s quiet and has orange hair. Those are the only reasons given. She stops going to school because of it, and her teacher tries to write her a letter asking her to come back to school. The teacher’s advice is that Kisa should try to find the good parts about herself so that she can like herself, and then other people will like her, too.

Totally. Useless. Advice.

But that shit totally happens in real life! It’s really making me question whether all the crazy stuff that happens in Japanese manga is actually true… (Do student councils really have ultimate power? Can people develop allergies to the opposite sex? Where is my flying robot?)

Anti-bullying advice really comes down to: Just be like everyone else, and you’ll be fine.

*exasperated sigh*

Another problem, and one that I’ve seen firsthand: Teachers sometimes bully students to gain control over the rest of the class. If there’s a student that other students bully, the teacher might bully them in class, too, because then the teacher is showing that they are on the students’ side (excluding the victim). And then everyone, as a group, gangs up on the student.

And I want to hit someone.

Bullying: Japan vs. the U.S.

Bullying seems to follow a pattern based on culture. In the United States, we have an individual-based culture. So bullying is also individual-based. It’s less about “you’re weird” and more about “I don’t like you.” This isn’t always the case, but in my experience (being bullied mostly), that’s what it boils down to. There are many reasons to not like someone.

One is that they’re a threat. If you’re a threat to someone, they will bully you.

(Oh man, how many ways could I apply this to the U.S.’s actions…? But we won’t get into that. Just have it noted.)

For example, when I was in middle school, I was on a junior track team with my friend Sandra. I wasn’t very fast, and I mostly did long distance events. Sandra, however, was very fast and a good sprinter. There was another girl on the team who was also a sprinter.

And she was so mean to Sandra! Because Sandra could run faster than her. Sandra was a threat to her. 

One day, as Sandra and I were leaving practice, the girl yelled, “Oh, bye Megan! And bye bitch!”

Yup. Jealousy. Very personal.

(Sandra was seriously one of the nicest people I’d ever met at the time, so the insult seriously came out of nowhere else.)

Japan, on the other hand, has a group-based culture. Instead of bullying being about “I don’t like you,” it’s “you’re different.”

And I can’t be sure, but I think that’s possibly more damaging to a person. Because you can write off people who have some personal vendetta against you (if you’re the kind of person who can do that). But if an entire group of people are telling you that you, as a person, are just wrong? That would break a person down completely.

That’s why there’s a whole separate word in Japanese for “suicide caused by bullying.”

I’m sure both types of bullying—the personal type in the U.S. and the group type in Japan—are present in both places. (I definitely remember some Japanese-style bullying going on when I was a kid.) But one type shows up more often, I think.

It doesn’t really matter which type it is though. I think bullying comes out of an intense sense of insecurity. In the personal type, the bully often acts out to feel superior, because they somehow feel inferior. In the group type, the bullies are threatened by the person who is different—because they can’t comprehend what it might mean to their group.

In order to really stop bulling worldwide, we all need to reconsider the way we look at others. Before we jump to judge people, we have to think about their individual situation. We have to accept that people are different, that people are going to be better at certain things, or worse. The world is filled with people with individual thoughts and desires. And the sooner we can all come to terms with that, the sooner we can all get along.

Further Reading

If you want to know more about bullying in Japan, check out these articles! They are much better than my entry.






EDIT, October 18th 2013:

Recently, Wil Wheaton made a post on his Tumblr about his experiences with bullying. He was bullied by a neighbor, and his son was bullied at school. And each time, no one could seem to do anything about it.

This is why I think the solution to the bully problem is not victim blaming or telling the victim to protect themselves. Because sometimes, you can’t protect yourself.

No, the solution is to teach everyone that everyone is a person, and that we should all treat each other with respect, even if we think they don’t deserve it. Everyone has the right to live and be happy. And no one has the right to take that away from them.

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4 Responses to Bullying in Japan

  1. Claire says:

    Great post! Nice ending XD

    Also, that’s so interesting how the culture changes affects the types of bullying. I wonder how cliques fit into the whole group/individual bullying spectrum, because they can be kind of like individualistic groups. It’s a weird in-between thing. It’s interesting, though, that it’s such a positive thing to be different from others in the U.S. Kind of like how girls say “I’m not like other girls,” and that’s always interpreted as a GOOD thing.

    • Thanks for your comment! :D

      Hmm… I haven’t noticed any cliques. I hardly know which of the students are actually friends. -___- I mean, I thought that kid on the basketball team was friends with them all… Apparently not really… (At least, not by my definition of friendship.)

      I’m sure there are probably cliques, but yeah. I don’t know!

      It’s very strange being in a country where being like everyone else is valued, coming from a culture where being an individual is valued. Besides the language barrier, that factor has also made it a little difficult to make friends… The one person that I’ve gotten close to would technically not even be considered part of the Japanese-group-thing, because they happen to be secretly half. :X Shh. It’s definitely been easier to connect with people who are considered to be outsiders. Even in the U.S., that’s kind of where I always was anyway, but now it’s more extreme. It’s… a weird place to be.

  2. holly love says:

    people should stop bullying

    • I’m afraid it’s not as easy as people just stopping bullying. It’s in our culture; we have to adjust the way we see other people as people first, and then hopefully we can treat each other more kindly and thoughtfully.

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