The Ijime Mondai in Japan vs. Worldwide Bullying Problem


As parents, we do want our children to develop proper social skills when interacting with their peers in school. While we don’t want necessarily to appear too overprotective by intervening when kids are having harmless rough-housing fun, we DO want to shield our children from the harmful consequences of bullying. It can be hard to know what to do. Experts on bullying say being bullied leads to depression and low self-esteem, see – “Does Bullying DO any harm?”



Knowing what constitutes bullying will help us determine whether our child needs help.

“Bullying in its truest form is comprised of a series of repeated intentionally cruel incidents, involving the same children, in the same bully and victim roles…..The intention of bullying is to put the victim in distress in some way. Bullies seek power.” quoted from the webpage


Bullying can be physical, verbal or relational.

-Physical Bullying – includes the victim being hit or kicked, or the taking or damaging of the victim’s property;

-Verbal Bullying is when bullies use words to hurt or humiliate another person. Verbal bullying includes name-calling, insulting, making racist comments and constant teasing. It is easiest to inflict but its effects can be more devastating because there are no visible scars.

-Relational Bullying is occurs when bullies try to convince their peers to exclude or reject a certain person or people and cut the victims off from their social connections. The most devastating effect is the rejection by the peer group at a time when children most need their social connections. (See definitions at  and


To gain a local perspective, read Miya Omori’s article “Ijime“. Omori discusses the problem known as ijime in the Japanese schools. Ijime is regarded a recent problem of school-age children alongside of other emerging issues of tokokyohi (school refusal), suicide delinquency, psychosomatic disorders, developmental disabilities, reading retardation and eating disorders. (See also other related articles “Why are Japanese children on Knife’s Edge” see  “Children Killing Children…”.

If our kids were bullied victims, it would be easy to grow resentful of the Japanese society BUT we should be mindful that bullying is really a world-wide problem. In the US the facts about bullying show that 10 to 15 percent of children are bullied regularly, and bullying most often takes place in school, frequently right in the classroom. As many as 7 percent of eighth grade students in the United States stay home at least once a month because of bullies (source: article by Colleen Newquist, Education World®). Each year, between 10 and 12 children kill themselves in the UK because they are being bullied at school and no-one in authority is doing anything to tackle the bullying. From 1 September 1999, all UK schools were legally required to have an anti-bullying policy.” Failure by a school to implement an effective, active anti-bullying policy is now considered a breach of duty of care. There have been successful court cases which ruled that schools had to compensate bullying victims for the damage caused by their inaction. Dr Ken Digby of the University of Southern Australia says bullying affects 20 per cent of school children.

Nevertheless Omori calls it a “unique phenomenon of Japanese schoolchildren”. Bullying exists everywhere in the world, so why is the “ijime mondai” so unique? I believe, culturally, because the conflict resolution methods are so different, Japanese parents, teachers and administrators have not responded to the problem in the same way as others have in the West. How long will it take for local schools and administrators to go down the same path that the US and UK societies have taken in resolving the bullying issue?


I arrived in Japan when my son was one-and-a-half years old and we started going to the playgrounds and sandboxes nearby. There was hardly a day when my son did not get pushed, bopped on the head or sometimes jabbed by a stick or spade. Many times when bigger kids thought no adult was watching, they would pick on my son, one boy physically carried and threw him out of the sandbox. This went on for a few months, until too stressed at always having to intervene, I chose to take my son for long walks instead and to reduce time spent at the communal playgrounds. At the civil servant’s quarters where we live, my son experienced a milder form of bullying with a group of kids always seen playing together in the lobby of our building. My son always said konnichiwa to them and wanted to join them at their waterplay, mudpie making, etc., but he always either received dirty looks or got pushed away. This continued until one day we had a Christmas party whereby one of “bullies” tagged along with the kid we had invited. This “bully” who used to give my son dirty looks, was meek as a mouse….well, I suppose that problem (relational bullying – ostracism) is probably resolved. On another occasion, a boy (roughly aged seven) charged at my son with a shopping trolley at full speed ramming him into an open elevator and against the wall (I was a few feet away carrying shopping bags). His father smoking on a nearby bench watched, said and did nothing.


1) First, identify if your child is a likely victim and know what he/she is up against.
2) Second, undertake strategies to counter bullying.

3) Third, take active measures to lobby and bully-proof your kid’s Japanese school and to raise awareness among teachers that bullying is a problem.




My son is a totally extroverted, gregarious creature, a well-built and stocky boy for his age and who exhibits neither shyness nor fear, I had not expected my son to fit the profile of a victim. Nevertheless the unthinkable happened.

So what makes a victim? Research shows “the power difference between bullies and victims determines the nature of the interaction. Most children are approached by a bully early in their school career, and/or when they change schools. It is often the child’s reaction to that first encounter with being bullied which determines whether or not he/she will be approached again. Children who are victimized tend to display “vulnerable behaviors”. People who are identified as being highly vulnerable are often singled out as victims. ”

– Excerpted from the website:

“The child who is bullied tends to be socially less popular than most children; however, closer inspection reveals that many children will side with, or appear to side with, the bully because they know that otherwise they themselves will be bullied…….Also, the education system is biased towards physical strength (eg undue emphasis on sport and rewards for sporting achievement) whilst artistic achievements are often undervalued. Children (and adults) who are bullied tend to be imaginative, creative, caring and responsible.”

– Excerpted from website article “Child bullying and school bullying”

The flip side is knowing what your child is up against (if he or she is a victim of bullying). Experts provide this profile of the serial school bully:

“….In fact, the bully is a deeply unpopular child with whom other children associate through fear not friendship…. Children (and adults) who bully are unimaginative, uncaring, aggressive, immature, inadequate (especially in social skills) and irresponsible.”


“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the child who learns to bully at school, and gets away with it, then goes on to be the serial bully in the workplace. There’s also a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the child who is bullied at school also goes on to be a likely target of bullying in the workplace.

However, by the time a person enters adulthood at around the age of 18, their behaviour patterns are set and only time or a traumatic experience can alter these patterns. However, people who are likely to be bullied have a considerable learning capability and thus have a greater capacity to modify their behaviour as an adult. People who are bullies or prone to be bullies have limited learning capacity (especially in interpersonal and behavioural skills) and will often exhibit bullying behaviours for the rest of their life. Serial bullies have psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies which include a learning blindness and a psychotic lack of insight into their behaviour and its effect on others.

The second major difference between adult and child bullying is that the child bully can be helped to develop better ways of behaving, provided that there is a whole-school anti-bullying ethos to which both staff and children are genuinely committed” Quotes taken from website article “Child bullying and school bullying”


2) IMPLEMENT AN ACTION PLAN FOR BULLYING (tips & strategies from the National Association for the Education of Young Children):

“Parents and teachers are sometimes reluctant to intervene in conflicts between young children. They don’t want to see children harm or ridicule one another, but they want to encourage children to learn how to work out problems for themselves.

In such cases, adults have a responsibility to stop violence or aggression in the classroom or at home — both for children who demonstrate harmful behavior and for all other children. We can teach children not to take part in or become victims of –bullying.

Children who demonstrate aggression, or “bully” other children may be unable to initiate friendly interactions, express their feelings, or ask for what they need. If these children do not improve their social skills, they will continue to have problems relating to peers throughout their lives. In addition, if other children see that aggressors get what they want through bullying, they are more likely to accept or imitate this undesirable behavior.

Young children who are unable to stand up for themselves are easy targets for aggressive playmates. These children inadvertently reward bullies by giving in to them, and risk further victimization. Adults do not help by speaking for victims and solving their problems for them. Children must learn that they have the right to say “No,” not only when

they are threatened, but in a wide range of everyday situations. The key to promoting positive interactions among young children is teaching them to assert themselves effectively. Children who express their feelings and needs while respecting those of others will be neither victims nor aggressors.

Adults must show children that they have the right to make choices — in which toys they play with, or (within boundaries) what they wear and what they eat. The more children trust and value their own feelings, the more likely they will be to resist peer pressure, to respect warm and caring adults, and to be successful in achieving their personal goals.



*Demonstrate assertive behavior (e.g., saying “No” to another child’s unacceptable demands)and contrast aggressive or submissive responses through demonstrations. Let children role-play with puppets or dolls.

*Intervene when interactions seem headed for trouble and suggest ways for children to compromise, or to express their feelings in a productive way

*Teach children to seek help when confronted by the abuse of power (physical abuse, sexual abuse, or other) by other children or adults.


*Remind children to ignore routine teasing by turning their heads or walking away. Not all provocative behavior must be acknowledged.

*Teach children to ask for things directly and respond directly to each other. Friendly suggestions are taken more readily than bossy demands.

Teach children to ask nicely, and to respond appropriately to polite requests.

*After a conflict between children, ask those involved to replay the scene. Show children how to resolve problems firmly and fairly.

*Show children how to tell bullies to stop hurtful acts and to stand up for themselves when they are being treated unfairly.

*Encourage children not to give up objects or territory to bullies (e.g., say, “I’m using this toy now”). Preventing bullies from getting what they want will discourage aggressive behavior.

*Identify acts of aggression, bossiness, or discrimination for children and teach them not to accept them (e.g., say, “Girls are allowed to play that, too”).

*Show children the rewards of personal achievement through standing up for themselves, rather than depending on the approval of others solely.

(Permission to reproduce the above quotes from “TEACHING CHILDREN NOT TO BE — OR BE VICTIMS OF — BULLIES” Early Years Are Learning Years Release #14, September 30, 1996 is granted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Source: NAEYC website 



The preeminent role of teachers in reducing bullying incidents is understressed in Japan. Since our kids spend so many hours in schools, teachers surely have an important role in creating an ethos where pupils learn to treat each other with respect and bullying should be recognised as wholly unacceptable social behaviour. Schools thus need to take a firm stand against bullies.

Norwegian bullying expert Olweus advocates in his book “Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do”eus, first distributing a questionnaire on bullying to students and teachers to foster awareness, justifying intervention efforts and establishing a benchmark for later comparison. He also recommends:

“*Conducting a parental awareness campaign through newsletters, parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings, and publicizing the results of the questionnaire;

*Intervening individually with bullies and victims, implementing cooperative learning activities, and stepping up adult supervision at recess and lunch (opportune times for bully behavior);

*Working with students in role-playing exercises and related assignments that teach alternative methods of interaction, and developing strong anti-bullying rules, such as “we won’t bully other kids” and “we’ll include other kids who are easily left out. Such messages repeated on a regular basis can have a lasting positive effect.”


Another expert Ken Rigby of University of Southern Australia in his article “What Schools Can Do About Bullying,” believes that teachers can have a significant impact on the problem by:

*Expressing disapproval of bullying whenever it occurs, not only in the classroom but also on the school playground;

*Listening sympathetically to students who need support when they are victimized, and then initiating or taking action according to procedures approved by the school;

*Encouraging cooperative learning in the classroom and not setting a bad example with their own behavior (Assess yourself honestly: Do you use sarcasm or mean-spirited humor?);

*Talking with groups of students about bullying, and mobilizing student support for action to reduce bullying–for example, by including victimized students in their activities.”

Read “Bullying in Schools and what to do about it” Dr Ken Rigby’s book (see
Norwegian expert Olweus anti-bullying programs have been instrumental in reducing incidents of bullying by 50 per cent in schools in Norway and in South Carolina. For the full story, read the “Bully Proof Your School” article by Colleen Newquist, Education World®

If you want to talk to your child’s school administrators about implementing an anti-bullying policy and would like some useful talking points, refer to the “ACTION PLAN FOR BULLYING” website.

It suggests that schools make it safe for students to report bullying, implement a clear and effective plan to make bullies understand the consequences of bullying and to help victims, identify all forms of bullying behaviour and bullies and mobilize the masses of students who are neither victims nor bullies to take action against bullying (by refusing to watch bullying, reporting bullying incidents, using distraction with either the bully or the victim).

Last but not least, I’d like to add an exhortation that we guard against becoming too negative about Japanese education and society in general. Media anywhere in the world tends to give us only bad news, reports by foreigners tend to be equally negative. Although what we hear should alert us to the possible social ills of the society we live in to allow us to better protect our children, we should at the same time be grateful there is so much that our kids could benefit too in this society. I constantly meet absolutely wonderful kids at my son’s playgroups too, and some teachers I know just love the Japanese kids at the schools they teach. I have alsopersonally seen some of my closest

Japanese friends intervene by shouting at some elementary school-age kids who were bullying another kid on the street. And though we can’t stop children stowing knives, guns at least are outlawed in this country…strict gun control laws are something we can all be thankful for.

When our children are being bullied, it is a painful thing – but TAKE HEART there is something we can DO something about it. It certainly can’t hurt to try.


For more on bullying read Dr Ken Rigby’s book “Bullying in Schools and what to do about it” available from his website.


Below is a list of websites dedicated to the issue of bullying:

Bullying in Schools   


Bullying in Schools and what to do about it

Bullying in School: Effective Guidelines for Effective Action by Dr Ken Rigby

What is Bullying

NAEYC article “TEACHING CHILDREN NOT TO BE — OR BE VICTIMS OF –BULLIES” Early Years Are Learning Years Release #14, September 30, 1996


The book “Learning To Go To School In Japan” by Lois Peak also offers great insights into why Japanese teachers take such a hands-off approach to hitting,bullying and other aggressive behaviour of children.. The book has chapters on yochien curriculum and goals, the proper roles of home and preschool from the Japanese perspective and the concept of the authority figure.

Here are some of the relevant excerpts from her book:

“The behaviour Japanese teachers consider particularly troublesome is difficult from that considered problematic when viewed from a cultural standpoint. For example, among the behaviour problems most troubling to American teachers are excessive noise and motor activity and hitting or fighting with other children. Japanese teachers are more concerned about overreliance on the teachers and nonparticipation in group activities.”

Peak says fidgetiness and hyperactivity are considered with affectionate amusement much as one would regard restless puppies. As such teachers will not discipline children screaming or other activities that disrupt the classroom. According to Peak “the minimum standard for appropriate behaviour that the teacher enforces herself is comparatively low….Although American teachers generally consider fighting and hitting other children a very serious type of misbehaviour Japanese teachers are comparatively undisturbed by these incidents….When teachers do intervene, they are more concerned about reestablishing harmony between the two children by getting them to apologise to and forgive each other than they are with chastising or punishing the “offender”.”

She makes many observations on phenomena that would be likely be an anathema to foreigners:

— one being that morality is regarded by teachers are not being in the domain of the family: “developing character traits, interpersonal skills (obedience, cooperation, courtesy, responsibility is the role of preschool not the home”.

— Second, that selfish behaviour “wagamama” towards others while not to be tolerated in school is totally accepted in the home …since “amae” in the context of the family is seen as unqualified love essential for the building of the self-esteem of the child.

— Third, that teachers while holding highly respected roles in society, do not wish to establish themselves as authority figures. “In particular, Japanese teachers avoid direct use of their authority to chastice or coerce individual children.” “At all times the teacher must avoid developing an adversarial relationship with the child….they avoid isolating and chastening children as much as possible. Rather than use their authority to force or coerce a child to exhibit proper behaviour in the absence of a genuine desire to behave, Japanese teachers repeatedly explain the behaviour expected of him and arrrange the environemnt so that through other agents he experiences the negative consequences of his own behaviour”. The rationale for this self-restraint of teachers is the need to prevent “the establishment of a cycle of chastisement and rebellion between the teacher and a child.”– Fourth, that academic learning is not the goal of most yochiens : “It is clear that most preschools perceive their curriculum as focused on play and the regular routine of preschool life rather than regularized instruction.”

Peak’s work is not that of some homeschooling mum in Japan trying to make a couple bucks by spinning a “how-to-survive Japan guide”. Peak’s work is scholarly and well-researched, providing translations of yochien director memos, mombusho guidelines and much more for reference. It does not take on a judgemental or overcritical tone, instead choosing to point out how most actions are rational from a peculiar cultural standpoint. Available from the Tokyo Book Centre, opposite Tokyo Station or other major bookstores. ISBN:0-520-08387-3 University of California Press
Other good resources to follow up on would be the many internet links on Bullying at: and’s article “Bullying and Its Prevention”, URL: (This article is written by a psychologist who has clients who were bully victims in the Japan context.)



Copyright Aileen Kawagoe

NOTE: Recent scientific research has shown that most school anti-bullying programs produced no benefit or made the bullying worse. Izzy Kalman is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist who asserts that the only reliable way to reduce bullying in schools is by teaching kids how not to be victims. Kalman is a sought-after lecturer on bullying, anger control and relationship problems, and has developed a quick, powerful method for teaching people how to ensure they are never victims. Read Kalman’s book BULLIES TO BUDDIES: How to Turn Your Enemies Into Friends.

2 thoughts on “The Ijime Mondai in Japan vs. Worldwide Bullying Problem”

  1. Thanks for the article. Am conducting classes about this topic at the JHS level in Japan at the moment, and this has given me plenty to think about

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