When I was 8 years old and living in a rough neighborhood in Miami, Florida, a boy my age stopped me after school and demanded to ride my bicycle. When I said no, he threatened physical assault using a word that was unknown to me. Since I was not willing to find out what the word meant, I let him ride my bicycle.
When I got home, I immediately told my mother about it. Because my father was at work, she immediately called my grandfather. He came over to the house, picked me up and went to the little boy’s house. My grandfather explained the situation, and the mother gladly allowed him to “discuss” the matter with the boy in a way that got his attention. Needless to say, that was the end of the bullying. I had no trauma, and maybe the boy even learned a good life lesson.
Though this is an example from a bygone era in another country, there are still a few points that can apply today in bully-ridden Japan. First of all, I came home and immediately told my mother. It had been instilled in me to tell my mother when something bad happened and also to believe that she would come to my aid. Secondly, she didn’t wait around to see if it would happen again but acted immediately to resolve the situation.
My grandfather’s approach probably wouldn’t be appreciated in today’s world, but you’ll have to forgive us for being so primitive back then. We were more prone to deal with situations ourselves then to expect schools to solve everything. It was quite obvious in that tough Opa-Locka neighborhood that the school authorities could only do so much.
There are several questions that bother me about all the bullying in Japan. One is why children don’t speak up quickly, at least to their parents. I have wondered if it’s the cultural aversion to confrontation and solving interpersonal problems that children have picked up from their parents that keeps children quiet and suffering in silence. Certainly, many adults here also will not directly confront difficult situations and solve problems but will let them linger on or just run away from the situation.
I have experienced this first hand and also heard many stories of bullying among adults. In my experience, a person who couldn’t do their job used bullying as a defense to keep from being accountable. When I asked the group for help in dealing with this person, no one was willing to confront the person and risk unpleasantness. They were willing for me to continue getting abused and for an important job not to be done well. This not only totally confused me, it made me aware that I was on my own with no authority to back me up.
Possibly, Japanese children who are being bullied realize that if they speak up, no one will deal well with the situation. They can’t trust the authority structure in the world of adults. Which leads to a second nagging question…
Why don’t any other children defend those who are being bullied? I’ve noticed this over and over here. No one stands up to the bullies. Of course, a main reason is that the children don’t know if teachers and parents will back them up. Children can’t be brave on their own like that.
Another reason may be that Japanese culture clearly communicates that suffering is a necessary part of life and that we must accept it. And of course, bullying is a normal part of childhood that almost no one escapes completely. To try to protect children from all unpleasantness would be to make them unprepared for life. But defending those being bullied is also an important part of growing up that seems to be missing here. As a skinny little girl, I clearly remember confronting bullies on behalf of other children, which was a total joke since anyone could have beaten me up (except my little sister, whom I bullied a great deal, not being a perfect child by any means). I also remember other children coming to my defense when I was bullied. Only rarely did adults need to get involved, actually.
Japanese culture, however, seems to produce a passive acceptance of unnecessary suffering. The other side of the equation, alleviating suffering whenever possible, especially for others, seems to be largely missing in the cultural foundations. Certainly, Japan is getting better at this on a large scale, but maybe not on a small, personal scale.
When I first came to Japan, I was amazed at all the sympathy expressed in many situations by the term “kawaiso” (可哀想). This means something like, “Oh, how pitiful!” But then I was also confused by the lack of any intention to do anything about the pitiful situation. The attitude seemed to be, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” I guess this has roots in fatalism, or as my well-studied Japanese friend told me, “In the Edo period, Japanese rulers used a certain type of Confusio-Buddhist thought to convince people to passively and willingly accept violence and suffering without hope for improvement. It helped the ruling class to better subjugate the people.” The Japanese word for this kind of patience is “gaman” (我慢), and perhaps “gaman” is really at the root of this whole issue.
Though it’s easy to call on children to stand up for themselves and their friends, this kind of courage can only be imitated after seeing adults confront people and situations in a healthy way. They need to feel free to tell adults what’s going on, secure in the knowledge that the situation will be handled promptly and decisively.
Children also need to learn that we have a responsibility to reach out a helping hand to others when we can, even if it costs us something. This, too, can only trickle down from adults who actually believe this is true and set good examples.