Bullying Behavior in Japanese Schools:
The Discourse of Sociological Practice Volume 1, Issue 1Summer 1998
Bullying Behavior in Japanese Schools:
Discrimination in a Homogeneous Society
Charlie Atsushi Inoue
Bullying in Japanese Schools
Bullying in the schoolyard or in the hallways between classes is a common
occurrence in many countries including the United States. It can be thought
of as a right of passage from childhood to adulthood. But in Japan, ijime,
bullying at school, is a much more serious social problem. In Japan, this
bullying behavior sometimes escalates to the point where the victim commits
suicide. Discrimination in a homogeneous society like Japan provides an
opportunity for sociologists to explore a different pattern of human
interactions than those examined in a society like the United States, which is
racially and ethnically diverse. In this paper, I briefly examine an internal
structure of a homogeneous society through bullying behaviors in Japanese
Nishiyama (1996) states that one of the most shocking bullying incidents to
receive extensive media coverage in Japanese society occurred in 1986 with the
suicide of an eighth grader in Nakano Ward, Tokyo. Hirofumi Shikagawa killed
himself, leaving a note that his schoolmates had tormented him. It was
reported that Shikagawa was constantly ridiculed, humiliated, and beaten. The
bullies had in the past doodled mustaches on his face with felt markers and
forced him to climb a tree and sing a song while his classmates witnessed his
Looking at interactions among Japanese school children, Smith (1995) states
that bullying appears to be a reaction to Japan’s brutal educational
pressures. For Smith, bullying is highly predictable, and it holds three
common characteristics. First, cases tend to occur during the years of most
intense competition for scarce educational advantages and then decrease
dramatically after the apportionment of the resources. Second, girls are
rarely the bully or the victim. This can be due, in part, to their exclusion
from the academic pressures of the college ladder. Third, victims are
frequently transfer students, who do not yet have the security of friends or a
group to protect them. That is, new students fall into a victim role before
they are fully integrated into their new community.
Kumagai (1996) indicates a total of 23,258 incidents of bullying were reported
in the 1992-93 academic year in Japan. Kumagai points out that the reported
bullying incidents occurred most frequently at junior high schools (13,632
cases, 32.5% of the total cases in public schools), followed by senior high
schools (2,326 cases, 23.6%) and elementary schools (7,300 cases, 11.8%).
Bullying in a Japanese school takes a variety of different forms, ranging from
teasing to serious physical abuse. The victims are usually ridiculed by a
group of bullies. For example, they are forced to perform comical acts for
everyone to laugh at. Bullies may write malicious words on the victim’s
textbooks or notebooks and steal or hide the victim’s possessions to make fun
of him. Victims are often forced to run errands for bullies. Moreover, many
victims are forced to steal money (usually from their mothers’ purse) to give
to the bullies. Kumagai points out that incidents of physical abuse increase
with the students’ age, occurring most frequently at senior high schools and
victims are in many cases abused by offenders in the same age group (1996).
Although the victims face many different types of humiliation, bullied victims
usually keep their problem to themselves, hiding it from their family,
teachers, and even from the police.
Kumagai stresses that the reasons for bullying derive from problems within the
family or from the interrelationship between victim, family, school, and
society. For Kumagai, Japan’s materialistic advancement has not included the
psychological and subjective dimensions of nurturing that are essential for
proper adolescent development, reflecting the opposing elements of tradition
and modernity in Japanese society.
Nishiyama also found that bullies and victims often share common problems,
such as being raised in troubled homes. Nishimaya found that many bullies and
victims were raised by alcoholic, workaholic, or estranged parents. Drug
abuse and gambling problems were also present in many of the families. For
Nishiyama, these complex and murky background issues crystallized into one
phrase: adult children of dysfunctional families.
Cross-cultural Study of Discrimination in a Homogeneous Society
From an American standpoint, it is sometimes difficult to understand patterns
of discrimination in a homogeneous society like Japan. That is, Americans
often ask, “Why do Japanese discriminate against other Japanese?”; Here in the
United States, it seems that wherever we go, racial problems follow us.
Discrimination or segregation in the United States may seem to occur as a
result of racial differences. This racial diversity and complexity in the
United States can sometimes be helpful to a newcomer. When a person joins a
new group, they often seek out others from the same racial or ethnic
background both to identify with and as protection from other groups. This
equation, however, doesn’t work in Japanese society. In other words, patterns
of discrimination or segregation in a homogeneous society take a different
form from those examined in the United States, which is ethnically complex,
providing sociologists with different research questions.
In terms of examination of discrimination or segregation between these two
different societies: the United States and Japan, it is significant to observe
the objects of discrimination. Bullying in a Japanese school is not the
group-against-group gang fighting that occurs in the U.S. Rather, bullying in
a Japanese school consists of one person falling victim to a group of bullies.
This individual-group conflict creates a unique characteristic for the
examination of discrimination in a homogeneous society.
Nishiyama maintains that bullying is a dangerously addictive power game. Once
the participants become caught up in the game, it is difficult to escape from
its psychological grip. Bullying is not confined to the relationship between
the victim and the bullies. One of the eminent characteristics of
discrimination in a homogeneous society is the fact that there is no way out
for the victim. Watching on the sidelines are the silent spectators, the other
students, who in their effort not to be the victims themselves lend their
passive support to the bullies.
Role of Suicide in Bullying
Student suicides in Japan can be conceptualized in terms of Durkheim’s (1951)
theory of both altruistic and fatalistic suicides. Shikagawa wrote, “I don’t
want to die yet, but this is living hell. I am going to kill myself, but I
don’t want somebody else to become the victim after I die or the whole thing
would be meaningless. Please stop this stupidity; that is my dying wish”.
(Nishiyama: 1996: 52).
Stories such as Shikagawa’s reveal clearly that discrimination or
victimization has nothing to do with race, sex, or ethnicity. It is rather a
manifestation or a consequence of struggle for power and competition for
scarce resources. A homogeneous society like Japan is not any more immune than
the United States to power games particularly by individuals who in their
pursuit of domination and control show little tolerance for anything that they
may perceive as different.
Durkheim, Emile. 1951. Suicide. Glencoe, IL: the Free Press.
Kumagai, Fumie and Keyser, Donna J. 1996 Unmasking Japan Today. Westport, CT:
Nishiyama, Akira. 1996. “Among Friends: the Seductive Power of Bullying.”
Japan Quarterly: 51-57.
Smith, Herman W. 1995. The Myth of Japanese Homogeneity. Commack, NY: Neva
Science Publishers, Inc.
Source: The Discourse of Sociological Practice Volume 1, Issue 1Summer 1998, University of Massachusetts Boston
Source: University of Massachusetts Boston / The Discourse Contents Page /Sociology Website / College of Arts and Sciences