Anatomy of Child Bullying in Japan 2: Bullying in Different Cultures - Differences and Similarities in Bullying Between Countries - Papers & Essays



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Anatomy of Child Bullying in Japan 2: Bullying in Different Cultures - Differences and Similarities in Bullying Between Countries


In this report, I will explain the following four key points of cultural differences in bullying based on a recent comparative survey on bullying in Japan, the US and Germany.
    (1) In Japan, bullying often occurs in the form of“a four-tiered structure” comprising victims, bullies, spectators and indifferent bystanders, while in the US and Europe, pecking-order bullying is more common, which is based on a power hierarchy.
    (2) The most common form of bullying throughout the world is name-calling and teasing. In Japan, bullying often takes the form of relational aggression which involves alienating a victim from his or her peers through ostracism, etc. while in the US and Europe, bullying is more likely to involve direct physical aggression.
    (3) Bullying starts in the upper grades of elementary school, where children become able to sense the atmosphere within the peer group, which will lead to non-intervention.
    (4) The impact of bullying and the reaction of children being bullied differ depending on whether the style of self-defense is individualistic or collective.

Anatomy of Child Bullying in Japan

Comparison between "a four-tiered structure" bullying and "pecking-order" bullying

According to the four-tiered structural theory of bullying (Morita & Kiyonaga, 1986), the situation in which bullying is generated involves four types of people, that is, victims, bullies, spectators and indifferent bystanders. This theory can be applied to the case of Shikagawa's mock funeral that I discussed in the previous report. This kind of bullying is quite common in Japan but not in other countries.

Previously, I attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's International Symposium held under the theme of "Cross-Cultural Perspective on Youth and Violence". This symposium aimed to address various types of violence including bullying. I spoke on the topic of Japanese-type bullying while other researchers from the US and Germany discussed bullying in their own countries. Symposium papers were published as one volume of series of studies in sociology in the US (Watts, 1998). Sociologist Meredith Watts, the organizer of the symposium, made an interesting comment on bullying in the above three countries, which I would like to introduce here.

In Japan, one of the basic patterns of bullying is a four-tiered structure while in the US and Germany, bullying is understood as a pecking order hierarchy, where the strong attacks the weak. The term "pecking order" refers to a hierarchy of dominance in animals, especially noticeable in chickens. During feeding time, a dominant chicken will peck on less dominant chickens to drive them away, thereby gaining preferential access to food and establishing a hierarchical order with respect to food. The practice of a pecking order is typically seen in a flock of chickens or a troop of monkeys.

I tentatively searched "pecking order" on YouTube. I found a video clip of a hen establishing her priority in the chickenyard. A newcomer, a brown hen with a long neck, first attacked other chickens that were in the upper rank of the flock. They tried to fight back against her but eventually fell short, and thus a new pecking order was established in the yard. As such, the concept of pecking order is regarded as 'herd' hierarchy where the stronger takes precedence over the weaker.

A pecking-order type bullying is also illustrated in a traditional Japanese cartoon "Doraemon" in which a typical child bully Takeshi (nicknamed 'Gian', from the English word "giant") rules the neighborhood kids with force. This type of bullying by picking on the weak is less dominant in today's Japan: children are more likely to use relational aggression such as ignoring and isolating a victim from his/her peers.

Bullying in other cultures such as USA and Germany often takes the form of a pecking-order. In the first place, the English word "bullying" emerged from the image of a bull blustering his way through to force his power. In the US, bullying surveys often involve violence. Likewise, in Germany, typical bullying is considered as physical violence between boys. The word "bully" is also used in the title of the above video on YouTube "Bully chicken redefines pecking order".

As you could imagine from the above, psychological damage due to relational aggression such as isolation differs between cultures. In the US and Germany, a basic relationship is formed based on individualism: which makes it less necessary, compared with the cases in Japan, to sense and conform to the atmosphere of peers or give into peer pressure to fit in. Such peer pressure is probably the reason why bullying often occurs in the form of "a four-tiered structure" in Japan.

When I searched "bullying" on YouTube, I found a video titled "Goat bullies are like students who bully". In this rather calm and easygoing world of goats, I found the goat version of "a four-tiered structure" bullying, comprising bullied goats, bullying goats, spectator goats, and onlooker goats.

Social norms and peer pressure

Cultural differences affect the reaction of children when they witness bullying: whether they try to stop the bullying or stand by passively. In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society like the US, for example, the collective will of a peer group becomes difficult to to share or is less powerful (unlike in Japan); instead people more focus on shared social norms. Therefore, one of the social norms, "Bullying is bad", is easily assimilated into the society. In such society, children are more likely to interfere and stop bullying when they witness it, because the shared social norm of "bullying should be stopped" has effective power over children.

In contrast, in a cooperative, group-oriented Japanese society, children often stand by passively when they witness bullying, sensing the atmosphere of peers or having a fear of countercharge if they interfere. This "atmosphere" is an unspoken collective will of the peer group, censoring the bullying and bullies being witnessed. When growing through group activities at school, Japanese children learn the rules of peer pressure: if they ignore the atmosphere of the peer group and try to stop bullying, there will be sanctions. A study shows that the number of children who are not willing to stop bullying when they witness it increases in proportion to their age.

Then, when do children learn such rules? I think they begin learning from around the age of ten onwards. I will explain further how it occurs.

When observing the developmental curve of children, we see the trend of caring behavior (such as helping people in need or trouble) starting to drop among children in the fourth grade of elementary school (9-10 years old) up to the second grade of junior high school (12-13 years old). I believe it is more than coincidence that bullying occurs most often in this period.

Until around the age of ten, children are more willing to follow the rules of adults such as parents and school teachers, but they gradually become able to sense the collective will of their peers. They need to deal with the rules of adults, but they also have to think about how their peers see them. When children recognize that "doing the right thing" seems a contradiction to the atmosphere of the peer group, they voluntarily refrain from doing what is considered right from the standpoint of social morality.

On the other hand, in a multi-cultural society like the US, it is easier for a child to interfere and stop bullying when the child witnesses it. In fact, when children were asked the question "If you see someone being bullied, do you intervene to stop it?", the percentage of "yes" responses increased in almost direct proportion to their age.

Difference in self-defense

Cultural differences are also considered to affect the reaction of children being bullied: it depends on whether cultural patterns are represented by individualism or collectivism.

In 1995, Japan's then Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture hosted an international symposium and invited a group of researchers from Norway to take part, including Professor Dan Olweus, who has been studying bullying since 1970's. In this symposium, the participants confirmed many cases of similarities in bullying throughout the world. For example, the most common form of bullying is name-calling and teasing, and bullies often use the word "virus" to a victim when teasing (which is the same in Japan).

Furthermore, there is also a similarity between bully tactics and the type of bullies. A bully must achieve popularity among children or good social skills so as to hide bullying from adults or obtain a consensus within the class. Several international surveys on bullying in Japan and Canada, for example, show the fact that most bullies are popular students in a class and their social skills are quite high.

There are also differences in bullying among countries. Having looked at why such differences occur, it is important to then realize the effects of differences in social structures and cultures. It is considered that such cultural differences reflect the different reaction of children being bullied; that is, whether these children are more likely to blame themselves or the bullies. In a society that fosters an extrapunitive personality type, the reaction of bullying victims will be "seeking revenge", while in a society that emphasizes intropunitive behavior, the reaction of victims will be self-denial such as depression, non-attendance at school and suicides.

In addition, although every culture puts value on having high self-esteem, there are differences in the perspectives of self-esteem. In the latter case of the above societies, people believe that they should build and maintain high self-esteem and block themselves from external attacks, such as bullying, on their own. Considering such cultural backgrounds, it is easy to imagine that Japanese children are very susceptible to attack from their peers, as the peer relationship, in Japan, is believed to be based on the notion of strong camaraderie where individuals help each other. Therefore, children are often badly affected and deeply hurt by the attack. As such, in societies that emphasize collective self-defense, it is considered that the damage of bullying will be deeper and more serious.

In the next report, I would like to discuss the relationship between bullying and the leadership of teachers in a class.

  • M. W. Watts (1998) Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Youth and Violence. Contemporary Studies in Sociology, Vol.18, JAI Press.
  • Yoji Morita and Kenji Kiyonaga (1986) "Bullying: the ailing classroom" Kanekoshobo
  • Anatomy of Japanese Bullying
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; Researcher of the Center for Research on Educational Testing; 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.