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Anatomy of Child Bullying in Japan 6: Bullying Prevention (3): How to Interpret the Anti-Bullying Act

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Anatomy of Child Bullying in Japan


Overview of the Anti-Bullying Act

On June 28, 2013, the Japanese government announced the introduction of the Anti-Bullying Act, which was enacted on September 28, three months later. This move was triggered by the prevalence of bullying in schools in recent years, such as the bullying incident that occurred in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, where a student committed suicide after being bullied by his classmates. The act prohibits bullying and requires government bodies, local governments and schools to implement measures to prevent bullying. The act also requires the efforts of children and parents for bullying prevention.

The Anti-Bullying Act consists of six chapters and 35 sections: namely, Chapter 1 "General Provisions," Chapter 2 "Basic Policies on Bullying Prevention," Chapter 3 "Basic Initiatives," Chapter 4 "Measures for Bullying Prevention," Chapter 5 "Handling Serious Bullying Incidents" and Chapter 6 "Miscellaneous Provisions." The act stipulates basic policies on anti-bullying, requiring the efforts of schools to prevent bullying through collaboration with parents and external professionals as well as to identify and report serious bullying incidents to the organization with direct jurisdiction and find solutions. The act also requires the efforts of government bodies and municipalities to promote research and studies on measures for bullying prevention. In particular, the provisions of Section 11, Chapter 2 "Basic Policies on Bullying Prevention" include the statement that "The Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology shall stipulate basic policies in order to comprehensively and effectively implement measures for bullying prevention, etc. through collaborations with the directors of related administrative organs (hereinafter, the 'Basic Policies on Bullying Prevention')." In response to this, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology ("MEXT") announced the "Basic Policies on Bullying Prevention" on October 11, 2013. For further information, please visit the MEXT website (only available in Japanese) which publishes the above policies.

Since there is not enough space here to discuss all aspects of the Anti-Bullying Act, we will examine some special topics.

Effective Enforcement of the Anti-Bullying Act in Schools

The Anti-Bullying Act is Japan's first law that explicitly prevents school bullying (note: we use the term "Act" as a broader concept of law, constitutions and regulations). The enforcement of the Act addressing the issues of bullying nationwide is very significant. It is expected that, with the Anti-Bullying Act, efforts for bullying prevention will become more effective and accessible to everyone in the country. However, the government's pioneering initiatives may not necessarily bear fruit at schools as intended, as was the case with the Yutori Education policy (translated as "education with latitude"). Although Yutori Education fundamentally aimed to cultivate solid academic abilities through expanded hours of experience-based learning activities by reducing study hours, it resulted in unintended outcomes such as an increase in academic achievement gaps among children and a decline in scholastic abilities. I personally hope that the Anti-Bullying Act will bring about desired outcomes; therefore, next I will discuss what is needed for the effective enforcement of the Anti-Bullying Act.

In order to enforce the Anti-Bullying Act effectively in schools, it is necessary to communicate the intent of the act clearly and fully convince people involved in the initiative (e.g., teachers, students, parents, educational committees, etc.) to avoid any misunderstanding, unintended effects, unnecessary formalization or ritualization, or additional burden or problems so that true intention is conveyed in a straightforward manner and accepted. Even if people are not convinced in the beginning, it is important that they eventually understand its effectiveness and appreciate it.

I will call the above the factor of "Value and Effectiveness." If the value and effectiveness of the Anti-Bullying Act are recognized across the educational society, teachers will accept the necessity of the act for the development of school children and be motivated to address the issues of bullying even if it is potentially time consuming for them. Likewise, administrative organs will promptly formulate practical measures for anti-bullying, while children and parents will accept teachers' guidance with confidence.

However, some teachers say they do not recognize the factor of "Value and Effectiveness." Why?

First of all, many teachers feel uneasy about the Anti-Bullying Act which specifies that "Children are prohibited from bullying" (Section 4, Chapter 1). It seems that all acts of bullying are considered evil and subject to punishment whatsoever. Under the act, principals and teachers can take disciplinary action against children who bully (Section 25, Chapter 4) and suspend them from school (Section 26, Chapter 4). Teachers say, based on their experiences, "It is impossible to solve interpersonal problems by simply prohibiting bullying in schools, just as these problems never cease to exist even among adults. If the directives to prohibit bullying and imposing punishments are introduced in schools, children who bully will further try to hide their behavior from adults. As a result, bullying could be conducted in a more insidious way, which will have a negative impact on the personality development of children."

There are various types of bullying, ranging from minor acts such as teasing to serious bullying that may trigger suicide. It is not realistic to treat all types equally and to consider them all as an evil that should be eradicated: we should first try to address and eradicate serious bullying issues leading to suicidal cases.

It may be easier for people to accept the Act under the perspective that "Any bullying that can negatively and seriously impact the mental health and well-being of others is prohibited." Nevertheless, this may give rise to other criticism such as "The criteria of serious bullying are not clear" or "In that case, does the Ministry allow bullying that is not serious?" Therefore, it would be appropriate to interpret the prohibition against bullying in the Act to mean that "efforts should be made to prevent all bullying, but all cases of serious bullying above a certain level should be prohibited."

The Background Factors of Bullying

Another reason why teachers cannot fully accept the Anti-Bullying Act is that it stipulates educational discipline for children who bully, which implies that the bullying child should receive disciplinary punishment rather than caring educational correction in serious bullying cases. In many cases, children who bully are exposed to stress due to various reasons and tend to release their frustration by bullying someone. Some children might have failed to learn appropriate interpersonal rules or have learned the wrong rules in the process of socialization. Therefore, it is necessary to provide special care for children in adolescence to ease their frustration and enable emotional stability by encouraging them to create a sense of solidarity and deepen mutual understanding in the classroom. It is also necessary to establish a system to provide caring educational guidance for children who bully. Since bullying involves a complex of factors including the social problems of adult society, it is important to understand the background causes of bullying rather than focusing on the visible bullying behavior itself, which is merely the resulting act of the causes. Adults should ask themselves, "What didn't I do that provoked this?" or "What can I do now about this?" Nevertheless, bullying is also a problem among children's society: it is the children who are directly involved and have the most critical information. Therefore, it is necessary to assist them to make appropriate decisions about what kind of a class or community they want to create. Adults should actively listen to the views of children and reflect them in educational policies, etc.

The Importance of Bullying Prevention

Some people have pointed out that there are few descriptions about bullying prevention. In this regard, I recommend reading the "Guidelines for the Prevention, Early Detection, and Treatment of Bullying in Schools (only available in Japanese)" published by MEXT, which provides detailed directions on the prevention and early detection of bullying, which will hopefully reduce objections to the Anti-Bullying Act to some extent.

The Anti-Bullying Act also requires efforts to detect bullying in its early stages (Section 16, Chapter 3) as well as to prevent bullying by assisting children to establish interpersonal relationships and enhance their emotional development through hands-on activities and moral education in all educational activities (Section 15, Chapter 3). It is ideal that schools and local governments share the outcomes of the above initiatives resulting from daily educational activities. However, some criticism still asserts that the government should provide more direction from the perspective of bullying prevention. As is the case with illness, treatment will become harder when the condition gets worse. Likewise, it is more effective to identify and tackle bullying in its early stages. Bullying prevention can be the most cost-effective approach. In general, bullying starts from repeated simple teasing and gradually becomes serious. As such, serious bullying that may lead to suicide does not occur suddenly.

It may be easier to understand the issues by looking at them as an outcome of human errors or organizational errors at school, when estimating how many times simple teasing was repeated before turning into a serious bullying case. Supposing a suicidal case provoked by bullying is the ultimate outcome of human error or organizational error, it is useful to adopt the formula known as "Heinrich's Law." It illustrates that, in the workplace, for every accident that causes a major injury, there are 29 accidents that cause minor injuries and 300 accidents that cause no injuries (near misses that may have led to an accident). Therefore, it is important to achieve effective bullying prevention by observing children's activities and identifying non-serious bullying, rather than addressing bullying when it becomes serious.

Conclusion

Space limitations do not allow a discussion of all the views presented here, but it should be noted the Anti-Bullying Act has many more features such as measures for cyber bullying and giving appropriate credit to schools reporting bullying in order to prevent the concealment of bullying by schools. The act also helps to revitalize the debate on bullying inside and outside Japan, as the first law addressing the problems of bullying in Japan. In sum, I would like to emphasize the following points in order to prevent bullying effectively: the Anti-Bullying Act should be enforced in a convincing and effective manner as a law; bullying measures should be formulated based on an understanding of the views and expectations of children; and each adult involved should consider their error of omission that can cause bullying, instead of authoritatively criticizing children who bully and their teachers.

Profile

report_sugimori_shinkichi.jpg Dr. Sugimori is Professor of Social Psychology at Tokyo Gakugei University, conducting research on group psychology (evaluation of team working, psychology in the citizen judge system, and effects of experiential activities) as well as risk psychology, from the standpoint of cultural social psychology focusing on social relations between individuals and groups. He also serves as Board Member of the Japanese Society for Law and Psychology; Executive Board Member of the Society for Field-Culture Education; Board Member of the Youth Friendship Association; Councilor of the Outward Bound Japan; Board Member of the Children Institute for the Future, Tokyo Gakugei University; Chairman of the Accreditation Committee, Japan Association for Certifying and Training Educational Specialists.
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