Thinking About the Otsu Bullying

Masayoshi Koga
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Sociology of Education

1. No End in Sight for Bullying Incidents

A bullying incident that occurred in Otsu has been stirring up a great deal of controversy. It has come to light that a second-year middle school student who jumped to his death in October last year was the victim of intense bullying, including physical assaults and extortion for money, at the hands of some of his classmates. Both the teachers and the board of education failed to take appropriate measures, it has been reported, despite receiving reports that he was being bullied by his classmates in a questionnaire survey conducted by the school after the incident.

As some point to the many similarities between this incident and the Okochi Incident of 1994, claiming that such cases constitute “juvenile crimes” rather than bullying, the perpetrators have become the targets of a wave of online bashing. Setting aside the issue of whether police intervention would have been appropriate, it seems safe to say that the school, which ignored the violent incidents that lead to the tragedies, bear a heavy share of the responsibility. However, rather than blaming the responsible parties for their inappropriate response as most of the media reports have done, I’m inclined to think that the fundamental problem lies in the current conditions of the school, where school officials have been scrambling to determine whether the incident was bullying or not and account for their actions in a risk society, while losing sight of their responsibility to respond to the behavior of the children who “live” and interact at the school.

2. Schools’ Responsibility for the “Bullying Problem”

First let us focus on the point that the media emphasized the lack of insight into the bullying problem demonstrated by the school officials and the board of education and their tendency to cover up such incidents. Did the teachers, who are educational specialists, lack the skills to detect and deal with the bullying? That is, there are deep doubts as to whether they were unable to expect the existence of the bullying—suspicions which the superintendent has repeatedly denied.

Over the years, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has repeatedly proposed guidelines and measures to understand bullying. After a series of suicides in 2006, the investigation methods was revised to determine the “number of recognized cases” personally reported by children, and the definition for bullying was also changed to “experiencing mental distress due to being psychologically or physically attacked by a person with whom one has a certain relationship.” Even if harassment is temporary and not one-sided, it is still recognized as “bullying” according to this definition, marking a shift in policy toward broadening the concept of what is considered bullying.

In a notice issued by the minister in 2010, schools were encouraged to conduct a fact-finding questionnaire survey, which was deemed problematic this time, and notice emphasized the need to inspect the initiatives schools were making and implement in-school training. Methods for dealing with bullying that schools would be held accountable for implementing were outlined, and it appears that even the school in question took steps to implement these measures.

3. The Ambiguous Nature of Bullying

The problem with bullying is that it can be difficult to identify who the bully is, and even who the victim is. While school violence can be seen as a rebellion by students against school authority, bullying arises from the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion among a number of peer-groups within a class. Even in the bullying incident under discussion, the relationship between the bullying students and the bullied student was originally thought to consist of “pro-wrestling games” and “quarreling.” In relationships among today’s middle school students, with their emphasis on concepts such as nori (picking up on the vibe) and KY (not being able to read between the lines), students must avoid appearing teasing too much. On the other hand, however, there is also the fear of losing one’s friends if one does not participate in the teasing. A fine line exists between being teased for having certain characteristics and being bullied, and the sense of belonging to a private circle of peers separate from the children’s social role as students is emphasized.

Negative attributes, such as moving too slowly or doing whatever one is told, are assigned to the targets of bullying, and sometimes even a superior skill like the ability to speak English fluently is turned into a stigma. Here, what matters is to find persuasive conditions of exclusion in terms of the peer relationship. The detection of a student’s vulnerability to being bullied means to depend on the appearance of chance occurrences in the classroom. This is what leads to the victim’s perception that the only way for him or her to prove she is being bullied is to commit suicide.

4. The People Involved Who Are Held Responsible for Responding to Bullying

The difficulties teachers face in dealing with bullying stem from this ambiguous nature of the problem. When teachers try to detect bullying, they start to think that they need to take care of every little incident, no matter how trivial. On the other hand, if they do not look out for bullying, they are unable to catch all the incidents that escalate beyond the level of everyday antics and fallings-out. No matter how much training teachers receive, their ability to pick up on bullying depends on the situation and the knowledge they have gleaned from experience, and the difficulty and apprehension involved in detection cannot be resolved easily. With this being this case, in today’s schools, where a defensive atmosphere has been spreading in the face of risk, school officials are either preoccupied with deeming the problem of bullying not to exist or trying to understand that they have fulfilled their obligations by taking steps to handle the bullying problem that are acceptable to everyone.

As I have already pointed out, however, bullying will never be completely eliminated. Rather, what the people involved with the site of the incident need to do now is to adopt an attitude to detect bullying and to live with the problem. It seems that the responsibility that the teachers and everyone else involved with the school most needed to fulfill was to redefine the school as a place to live and to continue to respond to troubled children while interacting with them on a daily basis. It would perhaps not be an overstatement to say that the excessive response of educators to the problematic handling and disregard of bullying that the media honed in on has skewed their perspective of the problem, which should be viewed head-on, based on their daily relationship with students. The Otsu bullying incident has dramatically confronted us with the question of the kind of responsibility that a risk society truly needs schools to fulfill.



An episode of the educational program “Corridor of Knowledge [Chi no kairo]” supervised by the author (“Young People Searching for Their Identities: Is Being a Freeter (Part-Time Worker) a Bad Thing? [Jibun sagashi o suru wakamonotachi: fritatte yokunai koto desuka?]” (Episode 48))   
Another episode of the educational program “Corridor of Knowledge [Chi no Kairo]” supervised by the author (“Asking Questions about How to Support Troubled Youth [Konnan o yusuru kodomo no shien o toikakeru]” (Episode 80))


Masayoshi Koga
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Sociology of Education

Born in Tokyo in 1957. Graduated from the College of Human Sciences, University of Tsukuba in 1980.
Finished the Master’s Program in Education, University of Tsukuba in 1983.
Withdrew from the Doctoral Program in Education, University of Tsukuba after completing the course requirements in 1985.
Taught as a lecturer at Akita University of Economics and Law and an assistant professor at Miyagi University of Education before becoming a professor on the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University in 2003.
His current focus of research is analyzing educational practices in high schools and self-support facilities (juvenile correctional facilities, training schools that help young people become more independent) for troubled youth and exploring the educational potential of these institutions. For this research, he conducts long periods of participant observation at educational institutions all over the country.
Major publications he has written and edited include The Ethnography of “Teaching” [“Oshieru koto” no Esunogurafi] (Kaneko Shobo, 2001) and For People Learning about Qualitative Research Methods [Shitsuteki chosaho o manabu hito no tame ni] (Seikai Shisosha, 2008).

Recent Works by the Author:


-Teruyuki Hirota, Masayoshi Koga and Shigeki Ito, eds., Education at Juvenile Correctional Facilities in Present-Day Japan: Through Qualitative Research [Gendai nihon no shonenin kyoiku: shitsuteki chosa o toshite] (University of Nagoya Press).
-Masayoshi Koga, ed., “Asking Questions about How to Support Troubled Youth [Konnan o yusuru kodomo no shien o toikakeru],” Chuo Hyoron, Vol. 279 (May 2012).