A recent spate of student suicides resulting from bullying has caused deep concern in Japan. Catherine Makino reports from Tokyo.
Five children in Japan have killed themselves since last September after being bullied at school. One of them, a 12-year-old, jumped from a high building after her classmates teased her about being short. A 14-year-old boy hanged himself after his classmates tried to extort money from him.
Bullying has long been a problem in Japanese schools. Students are under intense pressure to conform; those who do not fit in can be picked on, sometimes brutally. Concern has grown in recent years about the problem, especially with the string of recent bullying-linked suicides.
According to the National Police Agency, bullying cases among minors that resulted in the police action soared to a 20-year high last year. The number of youngsters punished for bullying last year jumped forty-one percent from 2005, to 460.
Typically, the bullies extorted money from their victims or physically attacked them. When questioned by police about their motivation, 43 percent said they bullied their victims because they were weak, did not offer resistance and, most importantly, did not fit in with the group.
Police are not sure what has caused the increase in cases. In part, it may come from heightened awareness of the problem, and growing public willingness to report it.
Asao Naito, a sociologist and author of two well-known books on bullying, says Japan is a group-oriented society and maintaining harmony within the group is paramount. Classmates rarely come to the defense of bullied students; thus, it is the entire group against only one.
"It is the kids who do not fit into the group who are the ones who will be bullied," Naito says. "The Japanese educational system teaches students that it is not permitted to withdraw from the group, be an individual, or live independently."
Onlookers are reluctant to help victims; they feel they have to participate in bullying, or they will become the next victim.
The intense competition and workload in Japanese schools, as students prepare for high school and university entrance examinations that can determine their futures, adds to the problem. Bullying becomes an outlet for tensions.
Naito says it was only in the last decade that bullying became a moral issue.
"Bullying was accepted until the 1990s. When I was in high school, my teacher beat up my classmates," Naito says. "When I went to the police and reported it, they warned me students who report bullying end up becoming part of an ultra-conservative, extreme group."
Naito says it was the influence of Western values that changed Japan's perception of bullying, and made it a moral issue.
The Japanese government panel on education reform has become more involved as a result of the increase in bullying. The government has called on schools to tackle the dangers of bullying, to teach staff not to turn a blind eye, and to warn children about bullies.
Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has urged schools to take stronger measures to punish bullies.
Tadashi Mochizuki, the director of the Ministry of Education, says the issue is taken seriously.
"We do not allow to bullying in schools," Mochizuki says. "In Japan, we recognize the cycle of school bullying; therefore, we implemented guidance manuals for teachers, the school board of education, and every school, in cooperation with parents and local committees."
He notes that it is not an easy problem to solve.
"Today it has become more difficult to uncover bullying, because kids are smarter at hiding it from teachers and parents, especially with use of the mobile phone, and the Internet," Mochizuki says.
So-called cyber-bullying has taken off in Japan, as in the United States and countries such as South Korea. Victims receive abusive e-mails or text messages and often are humiliated on Internet bulletin boards.
The Ijime Higasha no Kai, or the Bullying Group of Eastern Japan, is one organization demanding that more be done. The organization, made up of relatives of bullied children, recently wrote a letter to the Ministry of Education and said it is primarily the school's responsibility to discipline bullies and urging government action.
The group's letter asked why teachers only seem to lecture against bullying, but never do anything to stop it.
Experts on bullying say the fact that it appears to be increasing and growing more violent suggests that the next generation is absorbing the message that it is acceptable to mistreat those who express different views, or even look slightly different.