An Epidemic

Public awareness for the cataclysmic problems in schools skyrocketed on April 20, 1999.

Imagine if you will… or try not to, it might be better for your soul… just a typical high school girl sitting at her desk between classes, talking to friends, enjoying the few free moments she has to not think about homework, college, and life in general.

A scream breaks the flow the conversation.

Shatters it.

This wasn’t a scream of surprise, or pain. It was pure terror, and it didn’t go away.

Columbine High School. We all know the story. We know the issues it raised. Gun control, for one. But perhaps what shocked people more than anything else in the weeks that followed was the cause, the reason two seemingly-normal high school boys took it upon themselves to displace their community with gunfire: bullying.

Even seven years later and six thousand miles away, it seems that even in Japan, certain behavior will never dissipate in schools.

People underestimate just how stressful young people can feel – you don’t have to be working a twenty-hour day and lacking funds to truly experience disappointment, anger, insignificance, or solace.

Don’t you remember what it was like? Hormones rising, sex everywhere (stressful whether you’re having it or not), verbal taunts around every corner, emotions running high, the pains of homework on you every second?

You have the rest of your life to do with as you choose; in those times, all you could see were a few moments ahead. The next time that girl walks by your locker. The class you have with that jerk who you wouldn’t mind seeing dead (a few moments, remember… consequences don’t exist). The homework you need to finish in ten minutes. The people you try to avoid on a hourly basis so you don’t spend the rest of the day hitting yourself, cursing yourself for not coming up with a clever retort, something to make them feel as horrible as you do. Don’t sell it short – it’s probably one of the most emotionally unstable times you will ever experience.

And apparently this epidemic has hit Japan rather harshly. There are no school shootings, no bombs, no mass fatalities. If this had been another Columbine story about an oppressed teen lashing out, it probably wouldn’t have been as surprising. But these occurrences, and the reaction of those who are supposed to be responsible, are unbelievable.

There has been a string of letters sent out to the education ministry of Japan, followed by successful suicides. All from students who have been alive less than fifteen years, all complaining about the intolerable abuse they received from bullies:

Japan pupil in ‘suicide warning’

Suicide of ‘bullied’ Japan pupils

Two 14-year-old boys kill themselves in Fukuoka

14-year-old Niigata boy hangs himself

What exactly caused this? Some of these children were well adjusted, normal by anyone’s standards. In all high schools, conformity is the norm – normal is what you have to be if you don’t want to spend every day getting beaten up or teased, in this case, to the point of death. Individualism can wait until you graduate.

In Japan this is even more pronounced; conformity is the standard for everyone, all of society. Expressing one’s true opinions when they don’t conform to the group’s is a surefire way to isolate and leave oneself open to Ijime. Ijime is the term used for psychological teasing, a problem running rampant across the country.

The deaths of these children are tragedies in themselves, but what’s really upsetting is the ministry reaction to these events. Education minister Ibuki Bunmei, after receiving so many suicide notes by mail, informed these victims that they should not send him letters on the grounds that they would "confuse [their] parents." He has since taken a more human role in this, but his reaction seemed to be motivated by public concern rather than empathy for the bullied students.

It is true that Japanese people will go to great lengths to avoid causing "inconvenience" to others at the expense of their comfort, and sometimes the wires get crossed; instead of dealing with one person’s problem, they consider the reaction of this problem by the majority. This sheds some light on Ibuki Bunmei’s behavior – in this case, implying that the public fiasco, the word spreading across the country, is the problem to be solved. Keeping the peace, so to speak, can result in some deadly consequences.

However, the censorship continues. Recently, Japan Probe, a prominent Japanese culture weblog, was contacted by the Hokkaido Prefectural Board of Education to remove certain references to the bullying occurring in Sapporo high schools on the grounds that “the student who was originally bullied may suffer secondary harm.” The full text of that email can be viewed here.

This seriously calls the intentions of the BOE into question – clearly the student has already suffered, is continuing to suffer, and would more than likely not be affected by a single article on an English weblog.

Instead of addressing foreign press releases, YouTube video postings, and personal weblogs, administrators might benefit from looking more closely into words like these…

"Teachers did nothing for me. I may be dead by the time this letter has reached you."