Moving Teachers from Complicity in Bullying to Change

Moving Teachers From Complicity in Bullying to Change

(If you are looking for the June 2007 Grammatically Speaking article, please click here.)

Teachers in Japan are the key to reducing bullying among students, writes Shoko Yoneyama. See Judie Haynes' Circle Time column, "Bullyproofing Your School," Essential Teacher, March 2007, pp. 6-7.

The suicide of children who were the targets of bullying (ijime) at school was one of the top news stories in Japan during October and November 2006.

  • On October 3, despite a suicide note and supporting evidence, a school and the local board of education denied for over a year that bullying had been the reason for the suicide of a twelve-year-old girl.
  • On October 11, another bullying victim, a thirteen-year-old boy, took his own life. The principal of his school denied the bullying mentioned in his suicide note, only to admit later that the boy had been the target of bullying initiated by his homeroom teacher.
  • On October 23, a fourteen-year-old girl committed another ijime-suicide. Again, after initial denial and much pressure from parents of the victim, the school admitted that the girl had been the target of bullying, as indicated by her suicide note.

Japanese media outlets were flooded with images of principals and board of education members kowtowing in front of the altar of the deceased or bowing low in front of the cameras, apologizing for their "inadequate response" to bullying.

Then, in early November, the minister of education received an anonymous letter. According to news reports, the handwriting and the content suggested that it had been written by a boy in either primary or junior high school. It pleaded with the minister to stop the bullying against him as "the teacher did nothing" to help him. "Why didn't you help me?" the letter asked the homeroom teacher. The boy announced that he would take his own life on November 11 if the bullying against him did not stop. The Education Ministry received forty-three such letters by the end of the month and urged schools and local boards of education to be more aware of bullying and not to conceal it when found.

Four more cases of suspected ijime-suicide were reported in November: a twelve-year-old girl, two fourteen-year-old boys, and a sixteen-year-old girl. This time, the school authorities immediately admitted that the deaths had resulted from bullying.

At the end of November, the Board of Education of Gunma announced that there had been 2,720 cases of bullying in the prefecture from April to October 2006, a phenomenal increase from 48 reported to the ministry for the entire year of 2005. After six student suicide deaths in six weeks and numerous cries for help, the wall of silence surrounding bullying in Japanese schools seemed to have finally started cracking.

Silence, Covertness, and Normalcy

No matter how extraordinary they may appear, the recent cases exhibit some key features of bullying problems in Japanese schools.

First is the silence surrounding bullying, leading to the underestimation of the number of ijime-suicides. The graph compares the number of these suicides reported in the Ministry of Education's official statistics against those reported in the media. Official statistics are based on the figures collected from local boards of education, whereas the media reports are based on the presence of a suicide note indicating bullying. The gap suggests the reluctance of educational authorities to recognize ijime-suicide, due mainly to its potential legal implications. It suggests that these cover-ups have become the norm with school officials.

Source: Takeda, S. 2004. Anata wa kodomo no kokoro to inochi o mamoremasuka [Can you protect the minds and lives of children?], p. 264. Toky Wave.

However, the situation is more complicated than educational authorities simply concealing the bullying. Their silence has been supported collusively, on the one hand, by the Ministry of Education and tacitly, on the other, by the silence of all parties concerned--except the victims and their families. Teachers, bullies and their families, and bystanders often think that it is to their benefit to keep silent about the victimization of the deceased (e.g., Yoneyama 1999, 177-181). As one student remarked, "Adults, teachers, and children look out first for their own interest" (Ujioka 1997).

Nothing is more damaging to the sense of morality of the young, and their trust in and respect toward adults, than to witness very few people standing up for the victims' rights even after their death. It makes a mockery of morals education and other educational programs designed to cultivate a sense of justice in students.

There are covertness and normalcy factors as well. Many cases of bullying in Japan involve good students who show few signs of problematic behavior. Research shows that some 80 percent of bullying among school students in Japan is collective (Morita et al. 1999, 41) and that group bullying accounts for over 90 percent of bullying that lasts for more than a week (see Yoneyama and Naito 2003, 319, for a review). In addition, almost half of the bullying in Japanese schools occurs among groups of close friends (Morita et al., 184), where the role of perpetrator and victim rotate (Taki 2001), meaning that a large proportion of students involved in bullying are themselves victims. This type of bullying differs from the one in which the role of bully and victim are fixed, and the perpetrator(s) are relatively easy to identify (see the chart for characteristics of these two modes of bullying).

Contrasting Features of Different Modes of Bullying

"Problem" Students

"Good" Students

  • Individual bullying 
  • Fixed role
  • Outside friendship loop
  • Individual factor
  • Individual solution
  • Group/collective bullying
  • Rotating role
  • Among close friends
  • Environmental factor
  • Structural solution

When bullying is only relational or verbal (e.g., rumor spreading or exclusion), it is very hard to identify. The normalcy of this type of bullying puts teachers in a very difficult position when casualties occur: who is to be punished, to what extent, and with what consequence? What if the bully was a victim three months ago in the same group, for instance? Clearly, there is a question of whether punitive measures are appropriate or effective to deal with this kind of problem. If handled poorly, it can easily become more insidious and hideous, especially with the wide availability of communication technologies, such as e-mail, mobile phones, and the Internet, which are ready means for covert bullying.

Teachers Can Intervene

The difficulties associated with silence, covertness, and normalcy do not mean that teachers can do little to help students. On the contrary, teachers hold the key to helping both bullies and victims.

In a study of 959 students who were bullied, about half indicated that the teacher was unaware of it, and some 10 percent said that the teacher knew but did nothing. Of the remaining 42 percent for whom the teacher did try to stop the bullying, 10 percent indicated that the bullying stopped, 18 percent reported that it lessened, 12 percent reported no change, and 3 percent said that it got worse (Morita et al. 1999, 142-43). As for the 1,175 students surveyed who had bullied someone, only about 30 percent indicated that their teacher had approached them about the bullying (pp. 130-131).

The fact that many students involved in bullying are themselves victims is important. When bullying someone, students managed to get by with no teacher intervention 70 percent of the time. When students were bullied, again no useful help came from teachers about 70 percent of the time. The experience of no successful intervention both as bully and as victim sends students a tragic message: it is OK to bully, since teachers will usually not notice. If they do notice, they do not do much about it, and if they do intervene, it is not going to make much difference most of the time.

Teachers must intervene successfully whenever they can. What sort of intervention depends on the kinds of bullying, the age of the students, the number of students involved, and the severity of the bullying. For students older than upper-primary school and for relatively severe bullying involving a small group of students, the Method of Shared Concern has been reported to be most effective in other parts of the world (see Rigby 2005; for a preview, see The Method of Shared Concern 2006). Obviously, cultural transferability will have to be thought through before this method is applied in the Japanese context. However, this nonpunitive and highly regulated approach may provide a good reference in Japan, in that it presents an alternative to the authoritarian/paternalistic model and the default model of the teacher-student relationship, that is, the teacher's simply trying to be friends with students.

Teachers Can Create a Positive Classroom Environment

Unlike bullying conducted by a domineering figure, the involvement of a large number of students with rotating roles suggests that bullying can very well be a response to the social and cultural environment of classroom and school. If that is the case, the strategy to reduce bullying should include assessment of the school environment itself. Since the mid-1980s, when bullying was first recognized as a social problem in Japan, the key words used by students to explain their behavior have remained the same: mukatsuku (sick) and tanoshii (fun). Students bully someone because the targeted student is "sick" or because it is "fun" to bully someone. Implied are an underlying anger and boredom among students.

Research shows that students who are angry at teachers and classmates are more likely to be perpetrators (Morita et al. 1999, 94-95). Bullying is more likely to occur in a class where students feel that they have been bullied by teachers. Japanese teachers are very much aware of this possibility. Over 30 percent of the 767 teachers who participated in a survey at primary and lower secondary schools thought that bullying among students was "closely related" to what teachers do and say. Teachers felt that they bullied students when they told students off too severely or without listening to their accounts, picked on a student when others were also involved, said something that hurt students, used physical punishment, ignored students, lost their temper, had favorites, or let out their frustrations on students (see Hata 2000).

In one of the cases of ijime-suicide described above, the homeroom teacher allegedly called the boy "a hypocrite who cannot even be a (genuine) hypocrite" in front of the class when the boy picked up an eraser for his classmate. He apparently also ranked students by using the classification of strawberries--"first class," "second class," and so on. The boy was labeled "unfit to dispatch." The teacher appears to have had a hidden curriculum to teach the class that it was "uncool" to be kind to people and that it was perfectly acceptable to rank and discriminate people unfairly. The bizarreness of his remarks may have made the class laugh, and he may have used it to help manage the class. Order may have been maintained, but the remarks are unlikely to have created a positive classroom environment. Instead, the classroom was probably filled with negative energy, uneasiness, and insecurity arising from the lack of a clear norm. Without being able to rely on an intrinsic sense of what is right or wrong, students would constantly have to read the classroom environment for a sign of what is acceptable.

In response to the recent crisis, a group of experts proposed that the prime minister upgrade the levels of control and discipline over students, teachers, and schools (Kyoiku saisei kaigi 2006). For example, it proposes disciplinary measures against teachers who have encouraged, neglected, or participated in bullying. It also proposes that teachers and schools be assessed concerning bullying and class management.

It is not hard to imagine that these measures, if adopted, will make teachers and schools more guarded and secretive than ever about bullying. This proposal will also increase their control over students. Instead of helping create a positive school and classroom climate, these measures would enhance the culture of control, surveillance, and discipline at school, with the likely effect of increasing frustration and stress among students and teachers and, probably, their need to bully someone weak. The measures are likely to fill in the recent cracks in the wall of silence surrounding bullying in Japanese schools.

Helping Teachers Help Students

To reduce bullying, the Japanese government can make it easier for teachers to help students. I propose three points for consideration.

  • Give teachers more time so they can (1) intervene in cases of bullying, if necessary; (2) have the psychological room to notice bullying; (3) spend the time necessary to improve their relationship with students; (4) learn skills to improve their work; and, ultimately, (4) change the school culture so that it becomes a more caring of students and teachers. Some 34 percent of teachers selected being too busy as one of the key obstacles for addressing bullying (Morita et al. 1999, 156). The number of teachers who took sick leave has been increasing steadily, especially in relation to mental health, which accounted for almost 60 percent of all sick leave in 2005 (Ministry of Education 2006). The trend suggests a structural problem. Improving the school and classroom climate will require improving the well-being of teachers.
  • Provide teachers with more professional training to equip them with updated skills in changing social and technological contexts. In medicine, for instance, communication skills are becoming the forefront of medical training. This is because the importance of the doctor-patient relationship (see Kaplan 2003) in maximizing patient well-being and the outcome of treatment are increasingly being recognized. Although dealing with students (and parents) is different from dealing with patients, teachers as professional care providers have a lot in common with doctors. 
  • Assess other aspects of school that may contribute to student discontent, including school rules, group management systems that emphasize conformity, exam-oriented study, and the system of the confidential teacher report (naishinsho). As a strategy to reduce bullying, revising the homeroom system in secondary schools may be especially worth considering, as it traps students in negative social groups without giving them opportunities to explore other friendships (see Yoneyama 1999 for details).

One long-term consequence of bullying is that it deprives students of the opportunity to learn. A student who was in the class of the twelve-year-old girl who committed suicide told a relative of the girl, "I wanted to include her in the group, but that would make me the new target. Just the thought made me tremble with fear and studying was out of the question." The decline of the academic performance of students has been a subject of much discussion in Japan. Perhaps the epidemic of bullying in schools is a much more significant issue in this regard than the authorities wish to admit.


Hata, M. 2000. Ijime taio to sono koka [The countermeasure to bullying and its effect]. In Ijime bohi-ho no kaihatsu to sono manuaru-ka ni kansuru kenkyu:1998-1999 Kagaku kenkyu-hi hojokin kenkyu seika hokokusho [A study for the development of a manual on preventative measures against bullying: 1998-1999 Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research report], ed. Y. Morita. Toky Kyoiku kaihatsu jyoho senta.

Kaplan, M. 2003. New emphasis on doctor-patient relations. All Things Considered, October 6.

Kyoiku saisei kaigi [The Education Rebuilding Council]. 2006. Ijime mondai e no kinkyu teigen [Urgent recommendations regarding the issue of bullying].

The method of shared concern. 2006. DVD. Adelaide, Australia: Readymade Productions.

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. 2006. Heisei 17 nendo kyoshokuin ni kakawaru cyokai shobun to no jyokyo ni tuite [2005 report of official disciplines and other matters involving teachers].

Morita, Y., M. Taki, M. Hata, and others. 1999. Nihon no ijime [Bullying in Japan]. Toky Kaneko shobo.

Rigby, K. 2005. The Method of Shared Concern as an intervention technique to address bullying in schools: an overview and appraisal. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling 15 (1): 27-34.

Taki, M. 2001. Relation among bullying, stress and stressor: A follow-up survey using panel data and a comparative survey between Japan and Australia.Japanese Society 5:25-40.

Ujioka, M. 1997. Ijime k "Kokode shika katarenu" 2,000 tsu [Ijime considered: 2,000 voices "which can be raised only here"]. Asahi Newspaper, July 2.

Yoneyama, S. 1999. The Japanese high school: Silence and resistance. London: Routledge.

Yoneyama, S., and A. Naito. 2003. Problems with the paradigm: The school as a factor in understanding bullying (with special reference to Japan). British Journal of Sociology of Education 23:315-30.

Yoshinaga, M. 2006. "Ijime" homusho de wa "zoka" monkasho to wa gyaku no kekka ni [Bullying has increased according to the Ministry of Justice--opposite results from the Ministry of Education and Science]. Mainichi Newspaper, October 23.

Shoko Yoneyama ( is a senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide, in Australia.