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Bullying among Japanese Children



Bullying afflicts children and may cause future PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). Now that many Japanese children are exposed to bullying in their daily lives, it is essential for them to cope with it and think about how to deal with it. So, what do they think about it? I would like to propose an answer to this problem and show it by analysing their idea about what 'bullying' is.

Here are some short essays on the subject of bullying which were written by average high school students in a compulsory 'Modern Society' class in late November 2006, when the words 'bullying' and 'suicide' were frequently heard in the mass media. The teacher suggested that they should objectively comment on 'bullying' and divide the essay into four parts:

  1. How do you interpret 'the fact that many "bullying" incidents occur'?
  2. What is 'bullying' really? What is the definition of 'bullying'?
  3. Do you consider that bullying will disappear or that we will be able to eliminate bullying?
  4. How can we cope with bullying?

Some of the students had experienced being victims, bullies, or spectators of bullying (Case1-4).

Case 1: One girl had been deliberately excluded every other month from a sports activity in my junior-high days. Every club member ignored and teased her. Once the victim was determined, the others never talked to her. It was a kind of turn-taking game. The girl who appointed the victim was the 'bully' from 'N' elementary school. At first, I was so afraid of the 'bully' that I took part in 'group bullying' without thinking about the targeted girl who was ignored. However, in autumn of my first year, my turn came. Nobody talked to me or touched the ball I used. I was really hurt. I intended to quit the club. What is more, I was very sad because I realised that I had hurt the victims, too.
Case 2: Not everyone, but almost everyone ignored a victim in my class and engaged in backbiting. Noticing the bullying, our teacher told us about what was going on and made all of us apologise. However, the bullying continued as ever.
Case 3: Some other students said bad things about my close friend. I knew she had a hard time, but I didn't do anything for her. I regretted that this might have put me on the bully's side because I did nothing. The situation didn't get my friend down. I thought she was very strong. There may be cases in which a person hurts somebody even though he/she thinks he/she doesn't bully others.
Case 4: When I was an elementary school student, I witnessed some bullying. One girl continuously harassed another girl. The harassment escalated day by day. It may be because the bullied girl always smiled. The bully said that this was a 'game'. The others and I could not stop the very aggressive bully, though we understood it was not good. Later, the whole class discussed this problem and it was settled. This situation taught me survival of the fittest.

It seems that some students have neither thought of the phenomenon of bullying nor the word 'bullying'. For example, one girl wrote:

'What is "bullying" really? To be honest, I have never considered bullying before writing this essay. So, I don't understand "bullies" and "victims" at all.' 1

Thus, these essays were written by the high school students who had been faced with the reality of bullying from a variety of standpoints, which produced different voices. However, most of them are probably not involved in bullying now, as a boy wrote:

'There is little or no bullying among high school students.'

Unlike the notes written by people who have experiences of bullying, their writings do not focus on their feelings and are almost objective as if they were far removed from bullying both emotionally and environmentally to some extent.


What is 'bullying'?

I will try to describe what high school students in contemporary Japan think 'bullying' is, quoting parts of their essays as much as possible. Sixty-one high school students, 43.3% of the total writers, tried to define the word 'bullying' and provide an answer to the question of 'what is "bullying" really?'

  • Examples of 'bullying'
    Firstly, I will show the examples of what they think 'bullying' is. Then, I will try to deepen our understanding of the images of 'bullying' in the world of children at some conceptual level by introducing their definitions of 'bullying'.

    • e-mailing bad things about someone by mobile phone
    • passing memos around the class
    • posting a new thread bullying a friend
    • treating the target person like a nuisance and ignoring him/her
    • playing 'knock out' game by strangling
    • hiding someone's shoes or notebooks
    • assaulting someone who is different from others
    • the person with higher power or of higher position insulting the weak
    • applying the nickname, like certain virus, to a boy/girl who is not clean
    • ignoring a person as if he/she were not there
    • surrounding and beating up
    • pushing someone
    • name-calling as a joke
    • shouting bad language at somebody
    • making sarcastic comments

    From the examples, 'bullying' can be divided into two forms. The former is 'physical bullying' which touches the body of the victim and the latter is 'non-physical bullying'. 'Physical bullying' refers to 'kicking', 'hitting', and 'imitating a combat sport'. 'Making someone run errands', 'making someone carry school bags on the way home', and 'making someone cough up money' are borderline activities, but they fall under the latter category because it is not necessary to be in contact with the victim's body. The latter also includes 'deliberate exclusion from a group', damaging belongings, and mental scarrings by verbal insult and so on.

  • Many more examples of the latter 'psychological bullying', which is defined as 'attacking someone using language and attitude', were given than those of the former type. In particular, descriptions of 'verbal violence' were notable in 45 places among all the essays. This implies that 'most contemporary "bullying" is insidious bullying which mentally pushes the victim to a breaking point.'

  • Focus on the hurt of the victim
    About 70% of the high school students who defined 'bullying', fourty-three students had a common feature: They regarded 'bullying' as 'hurting somebody'. Because 'there are two kinds of bullying' with regard to physical contact, the pain can also be divided into 'physical pain' and 'psychological pain'. Here, their definitions emphasised the fact that bullying included psychological pain, which was expressed variously as 'feeling bad,' 'painful' or 'uncomfortable.'

    Eighteen students, 12.8% of all students or 29.5% of those who defined 'bullying', gave considerable consideration to the subjectivity of the victim. (Case 5-7).

    Case 5: Bullying is ambiguous and not easy to understand. If the victims themselves feel terrible or hurt even if people around the victims think this is not 'bullying', it is 'bullying'.
    Case 6: There are many cases in which the offenders have no intention to bully. In the first place, is there any criterion of 'bullying'? Where is the boundary between bullying and non-bullying? There is no criterion. The only person who can decide is the victim who considers herself/himself bullied and no one else can decide. So, it is difficult to determine bullying and not easy to tackle the problem of bullying.
    Case 7: Whatever the bullies think, 'bullying' occurs when the victims think they are bullied or people around the victims think that they are bullied. The bullies can bully others for no reason. They just sometimes label them as disgusting persons and bully them. Victims subjectively judge what constitutes bullying and this may increase the number of 'bullying' occurrences. However, bullying is something like this. If people around the victims think it is 'bullying', it is certainly 'bullying'.

    The high school students who wrote '"bullying" is whatever is considered "bullying" by the victim' tended to answer that they were not sure what 'bullying' was. 2 Twenty-three students, 16.3 % of the total, implied that 'bullying' was a vague conception (Case 8-10).

    Case 8: I think nothing is more unclear and uncertain than the word 'bullying', because the definition has not been established yet and it can be easily changed according to how the victim perceives it. If the victim says that what the bullies did as a kind of communication is 'bullying', it will be 'bullying'. In some cases, observers see it as 'bullying', yet the victim says it is not 'bullying'. This does not become 'bullying'.
    Case 9: I don't have a clear definition of 'bullying'. Nobody can decide it. It will differ depending on how the subjects of bullying think. For example, A thinks 'B and I are joking around together,' but B may think 'I am bullied by A.' A takes the same attitude toward C and C may think that A is playing fun and games. Of course, there are cases which everybody can judge to be 'bullying'. However, nobody can easily decide the definition of it.
    Case 10: In the first place, what is the category of 'bullying'? It is different depending on how each person thinks and feels, so nobody can answer this question. There is no clear boundary. There are cases in which the victim feels bullied but people around him/her cannot recognise it and help. So, it is necessary for the bullied to ask someone nearby for help. However, it takes courage to confess the fact of being bullied. This may require more courage than to kill oneself, though not good to commit suicide.

    The word 'pain' is included in all the definitions of 'bullying' 3 by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the National Police Agency, Yoji Morita, representative of Japanese bullying researchers, and Dan Olweus, who is internationally famous for bullying research. Nonetheless to say, 'pain' is fuzzy feeling. As long as 'bullying' is closely related to 'pain', which is a subjective feeling, it is difficult to define 'bullying' objectively.


When does 'bullying' start?

In spite of the fact that the question 'why does bullying happen?' was not asked, most of the high school students wrote about how bullying starts. For example, one essay wrote 'the reason doesn't matter much. In any case, "bullying" begins.' Bullying sometimes commences for the purpose of bullying itself, though there may be other background factors, for example, bullies do it to release stress (19.9%) 4, to enjoy themselves (7.8%), to protect themselves from peer pressure (12.1%), and to gain a sense of superiority or safety by offering their presence (15.6%).

Some essays indicated that two kinds of communication escalated toward bullying to bring 'hurt' to someone. In one type, bullying starts from a communication based on positive feelings such as a liking for the other. In the other type, bullying stems from negative feelings such as 'dislike'. The former pattern was noted in 12.8% of all the high school students who wrote the essays and the latter in 24.8%.

  • I like you, but bullying comes out of nowhere...
    In some patterns, pleasant interactions between two people characterised as 'joking', 'making fun', or 'playing' on the basis of favour and trust gradually 'go too far and psychological scarring which can't be expressed just as "awful" or "uncomfortable"' is felt by one party. The communication which was not thought to be 'bullying' in a tacit understanding based on affection soon becomes bullying (Case 11-13).

    Case 11: The bullies don't have any sense of 'bullying' in the beginning, but the actions escalate without the intention to bully. For the bully, 'bullying' does not exist. On the other hand, the victims may feel they are just being teased at least in the beginning.
    Case 12: When friends act funny with each other, they use offensive or strong language such as 'stupid' or 'die' without hesitation. This is because they trust each other, believing that the other will accept the vulgar words as jokes. The younger the child's age, the more difficult it becomes to tell 'bullying' from joking.
    Case 13: At first, some children tease each other for a laugh. Because they may come to enjoy doing so, they escalate their actions. In the end, the activities become bullying. The more the number of the bullies, the less the bullied person protests.
  • I hate you, so bullying comes out of nowhere...
    When someone dislikes or despises another person or wants to get revenge and expresses such feelings as 'being annoyed', 'sick' or 'irritated', the feelings are transmitted to other people and bullying starts (Case 14-16). Nevertheless, the question remains: Why do such collective sentiments develop into bullying?

    Case 14: Let's assume that the victim A and the offender B were good friends at first. One day, they quarrelled and then B made an apology to A although it was obviously A's fault. If A took it for granted that B apologised, B would have ill feelings against A. So, if B told his friend C about that, C would also comes to dislike A. The chain reaction continues and finally A is excluded from his peers and this becomes bullying.
    Case 15: There are one or two 'leaders' in the class. They sometimes say, 'Don't you think that person had an annoying attitude toward us a little while ago? Let's ignore him!' and bullying starts. At first, only a small number of the classmates take part in ignoring the child. Then, the whole class joins in, and it escalates. In the end, they hide his belongings and say to the victim, 'why don't you just die, you fool?' Whoever tries to stop it or save the victim from bullying will become the next target. Thus, 'bullying' continues as a kind of chain reaction.
    Case 16: Nowadays, we can get anything we want. So, if we can't get it easily, we get angry and take it out on someone or something. Bullying starts like this. When others are unlikely to do as we want, we tend to treat them harshly. When we see someone who moves slowly, we feel irritated and treat the person coldly. Consequently, the victim gets hurt.

    If a person has some negative feelings toward someone else and says to people around him/her, 'I hate that guy', others may also adopt such negative feelings and actions. However, no one can recognise when 'bullying' begins. It depends on the context such as the relationship between the actors and the tacit understanding between them. Therefore, it is difficult to draw the line where 'bullying', which might not have started as bullying, commences on the time axis.


Difficulty of defining 'bullying'

About one fifth of the students mentioned that the boundary between 'bullying' and non-'bullying' was not clear, saying, 'we don't know where the category of "bullying" exists.' Furthermore, fifty-nine high school students did not answer the question of 'what is "bullying" really?' This number is almost the same as those who tried to define 'bullying'. It is not clear whether they did not answer because they had no idea, or they insisted there should be no answer by refusing to answer. However, it is certain that they considered it difficult to define 'bullying'. For instance, even the action of 'running errands' was thought to be a delicate matter and we could not say it is 'bullying'.

'Suppose A makes B buy some bread. This is "running errands", but isn't it "bullying"? B always buys bread and is pleased to talk to A, though he complains about it. In short, it is not until the victims think they are bullied that 'bullying' occurs.'

With the above case, if B wants to keep the relationship with A or the position in the group and decides to 'run errands' for A by himself, will this 'running errands' be considered as bullying, too? Even the parties concerned come to be unsure of 'what "bullying" really is.'



From the point of the subjectivity of the victims and the time axis, 'it is not easy to establish a definition of "bullying"'. It depends on how the victim feels. As the high school students emphasised, it is almost impossible for anyone to strictly determine the definition of 'bullying', as it comes into existence in the relations between people. The definition of 'bullying' is often associated with the problems of the ambiguity of the boundary, the extent of the grey zone, the lack of consensus, and the ease with which the statement that bullying occurred can be refuted.

As it is difficult to gain a consensus on what activities can be considered 'bullying', people often argue about how to define the word itself. As a result, there are some cases in which children who commit suicide and leave notes saying they were the victims of 'bullying', yet adults who have power over children say that there was no 'bullying' or that it was not 'bullying'. 'Bullying' is not just a fact, but a phenomenon which includes some interpretation or meaning. It is necessary for us to have the perspective that 'bullying' is socially constructed by discussing it. In addition, we need to have the insight to recognise who has the authority to define the word 'bullying'.

In conclusion, I would like to mention that the high school students themselves implied the way to confront bullying in their daily lives was to understand and sympathise with the 'pain' of the victims, and that in order to do so it is unnecessary to actually recognise bullying as 'bullying'.



  1. The quotations from the essays are bracketed.
  2. From chi-square test, the focus on the ambiguity of the concept 'bullying' was associated with thinking much or less of the subjectivity of the victim.
  3. Catalano, R., Junger-Tas, J and Morita, Y. (1998) The Nature of School Bullying: A Cross-national Perspective, Routledge.
  4. The number in the brackets is the percentage of the high school students who wrote the essays.
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