Persecuted even on the Playground
Original article by Richard Werly for Libération
Original title and article: "Persécutés dès le préau au Japon"

English Translation ©2001 Anna Stevenson

Tokyo, from our correspondant

"Would you like having cockroaches put in your backpack? How would you feel if someone called you disgustingly ugly? Or wrote insults in your notebook?" Inside a public schoolyard in the Shinjuku quarter of Tokyo, Kimie Hirano reflects on these disturbing questions in front of clusters of adolescents. It's the beginning of September; back to school time for millions of young Japanese. Their backpacks are new. Their uniforms - white shirts and blue pants or skirts - are well-ironed. For Kimie Hirano, it's the perfect time to "shake them up" and go back to war against the problem of persecuted children, or as they are called in Japan, Ijime. At age 43, this mother is, along with other parents, at the origin of a unique network of volunteers trying to mobilize teachers and students against the detestable practice that all of them have experienced at least once. Kimie speaks and asks questions. She pokes her finger into this painful wound in the Japanese school system. She aims to avoid a repeat of the 1994 tragedy that took the life of her child.

Allergic. Kimie Hirano haunts the "Mombusho", Ministry of Education. For the last seven years, with all the desperate energy of a traumatized mother, this Kanagawa (near Tokyo) resident has been moving heaven and earth in order to make the government take action against the Ijime phenomenon. Kimie Hirano and her husband Shinya had a son, Yo. In 1994, their boy committed suicide because he could no longer take the pressure of being Ijime, a marginalized child at whom fingers were pointed in his Tsukuimachi middle school. Yo Hirano was 14 years old, and had the bad luck of not being good-looking enough for some of his classmates. "As soon as his classmates became allergic to him, his school life became hell," Kimie recounts. Yo found his notebooks full of graffiti. He was physically assaulted. During classes, his mistakes made him the laughingstock of others. Up to his suicide... . Naoko Tonaki is in high school. She lived the martyr's life of an Ijime childhood: "In middle school, a girl who was jealous of me teased me constantly because I had acne. All of my friends left me. I ended up changing schools." The Japanese group belief makes this sadistic behavior take a fearful turn: "rejected by others, 'Ijime' are alone, faced with the clique", confirms Shinao Ubukata, social aid worker at Tokyo city hall.

The tragic case of the Hirano family and the suicide of their son Yo returned to the forefront in the beginning of the year. In January, Kimie and her husband Shinya, in a rare turn of events, won court condemnation of the city of Tsukuimachi, of the Nakano school that their son Yo attended, and also of nine of the adolescents who were guilty of persecuting him. 41 million yen (about US$380,000) in damages were awarded to them. But their court victory is only one step in their eyes. For indeed, the problem is serious: 10% of Ijime students, worn out from the stress, attempt suicide at least once. Others choose to skip class. The Ministry of Education estimates that 26,000 elementary and middle school students were absent last year due to discrimination. Aged in general between 8 to 15, many of these Ijime will later on become Hikikomori, reclusionary adolescents (read Libération, 26 July 2001), cut off from their families and the outside world.

The clique phenomenon. The country's economic crisis doesn't help matters. Children from mixed-race backgrounds, adolescents originally from Latin America and Korea have long suffered from persecution. But today, the new targets are children of parents in difficulty, following the loss of a job or a move to a different area. "If a child doesn't have strong enough shoulders, and his father loses his job, he will quickly become 'Ijime' ", confirms psychiatrist Hidehiko Kuramoto. Internet forums visited by Japanese adolescents are witnesses to these concerns: "What should I tell my friends if my father loses his job?",asks Hiroshi, 15 years old, on the popular site Channel 21. His two parents work for Fujitsu, the electronics giant preparing to begin mass layoffs. The "clique" phenomenon, widespread in Japan, and consumer society don't help anything: "In my grade, everyone's teasing a boy because he doesn't have a mobile phone", says middle school student Michiyo on the same site. She then admits, embarrassedly: "I told him he should get a fake one. That way I won't be ashamed to hang out with him..."

Responsibility for this Ijime phenomenon truly lies with the Japanese educational system. Respected for their iron discipline in schools, criticized for the stress it puts on students due to its systematic cramming, schools neglect the human side. The behavior of teachers, placed on a pedestal by the system, also leaves much to desire. "A lot of teachers live in an ivory tower and ignore their students. They couldn't care less whether or not they feel good or are being treated well", Kimie Hirano points out. Worse: some abusive teachers also persecute Ijime because they cry in class or don't work hard enough - without trying to figure out the reasons why.

Vicious circle. Finally, the persecution of Ijime is reinforced by rising criminality in schools. As in Europe and the United States, Japanese schools are becoming more and more violent. Physical agression is becoming increasingly commonplace. Moral harassment in schools is on the rise, since it is rarely punished. The only law on school safety in Japan dates from 1983. It allows students to be sent home if they have physically violent behavior, or if they skip classes. But no punishment is spelled out for psychological persecution (malicious teasing). The Japanese group culture and legislative holes insure the impunity of persecutors. "Those who persecute the weak, win, because everyone is frightened and ashamed to speak out," explains Naoko Tonaki, ex-adolescent Ijime. "School leadership refuses to talk about it with the districts because they don't want to get bad ratings. Teachers don't want to discuss it with parents because they're afraid of being accused. Classmates don't defend their friends because they're afraid of also being marginalized. It's a vicious circle."