Oh, this is some bullshit, right here.
This is one of those situations that puts me in a shitty head space that I just can’t shake. I feel impotent and useless and furious and ashamed.
There’s something you should know about Japan: This country runs on a system of institutionalized bullying. In schools, universities, companies, political arenas, police, military and fire fighting forces, medical establishments and, for all intents and purposes, every organized niche of Japanese culture, the sempai/kohai system reigns as the default organizational standard. Sempai is the term given to an older or more experienced member of a given hierarchal structure. Kohai is a younger or less experienced member. Under this system, the sempai is given near complete authority over any and all kohai. For a kohai to question, criticize or disobey a sempai is strictly taboo in most situations.
This system is responsible for the stagnation of so many Japanese corporations and industries. Long time employees who have only ever learned one way of doing things (which they learned from their sempai) are reluctant to change and never allow younger workers with different ideas to express themselves, let alone institute change.
This system is responsible for the shockingly large burnout rate for new medical doctors. Sempai doctors pile such amazing workloads on newcomers that they either quit, commit suicide or make career destroying errors at frightening rates.
This system is responsible for the continued institutionalized corruption in Japanese government. Any kohai in a government position who even suggests a change in the system is shown the door. Not for exposing corruption, but for daring to question a sempai. The sempai is older and therefore (goes the narrative) wiser. Questioning someone wiser than yourself reveals a character so flawed as to be unfit for the job.
This system is responsible for the rampant labour abuses in Japan. The famed efficiency and worker motivation that Japan butters its bread with is almost entirely due to a system where workers have been trained to do exactly what they’ve been told, for as long as they are told to do it as long as the person telling them to do it is older. Labour unions are so powerless here as to be a joke. Management always makes sure to have an elderly sempai figure in negotiations who can make sweeping statements that younger labour negotiators are conditioned to just accept. Most bargaining sessions are nothing more than management telling the union how things are going to be this year.
All of that stuff pisses me off. I don’t dwell on it very often, however. All I have to do is look at the corporate greed, sly corruption, cutthroat business practices, and crumbling social infrastructure in Canada and America to realize that none of these problems rooted in the sempai/kohai system are so horrible that they have no analog in my own culture. I recognize that the problems have a slightly different genesis, but I don’t feel that the cultural difference warrants any of the “These fucking people don’t know what the hell they’re doing” kind of rants that are pretty common in the expat community here.
There is one facet to the system, however, that does infuriate me and causes all of the negativity that I started with at the top: The sempai system is, as mentioned, an institutionalized form of bullying. I speak primarily of schools when I say this, but it appears that the same is true of all the places I’ve mentioned. Sempai students are not only allowed to bully kohai, but, in many schools, are encouraged to do so. Sempai are responsible for ensuring that younger students don’t get out of line. They have free reign to do as they please to stamp out behavior considered weird or different or contrary to harmony. They do so, in many cases, quite joyfully, as they’ve suffered in the position of kohai for years before finally having the chance to wield the end of the stick without shit on it. This is true of schools ranging from preschool to university.
Students who say the wrong things, who react differently to stimulus, who look differently, who think differently, who don’t like the same things are physically and emotionally battered for their transgressions. Teachers aid the process by scolding the victims of the bullying for exhibiting the behavior that brought on the wrath of the bullies, and by failing to implement even the most perfunctory of disciplinary procedures against known bullies.. This has been the case for so long, that it is now not only sempai that are given free rein to bully. Anybody who is bigger, more aggressive or can find a way to gain the upper hand is free to try their hand at it. Bullying is such an integral part of the social engineering that happens in Japanese schools, that teachers don’t even recognize it as a negative force. Parents who complain that their children are being terrorized at school are asked to help bring their kids into line so they don’t have to worry about it anymore. If the kid still doesn’t come around, the schools often suggest that the student take some time away from school. The numbers of school aged children who don’t attend school are growing rapidly. The schools hide the true numbers by continuing to collect tuition and to promote students through grades despite non-attendance. This is how Japan maintains its stellar graduation rates: It is nearly impossible to fail.
This week, in the news in Japan, you can read about a student in Shiga prefecture. He was thirteen years old when he killed himself. He had been brutally bullied for years. His parents had begged his homeroom teacher to intercede. He refused. They begged the principal to intercede and were told that there wasn’t any evidence of bullying. They finally went to the police. Three times, after three separate incidents of assault. The police told them that there wouldn’t even be an investigation.
It was pretty much inevitable that this kid would snap. When he finally did, and committed suicide, his parents, (who probably should have done more, but I have very little anger for them as my empathy trumps it), launched a lawsuit against the families of the bullies, the school, the police and the city. Nobody offered to settle or even discuss it. The city and the police prepared their defense based on the “there is no evidence that any bullying even happened” argument. They would have won, had it not been for someone (I’m not sure who…The news stories I’ve read don’t mention) who released details from a questionnaire that had been distributed to the staff and students at the school.
Overwhelmingly, the staff and students appear to believe that the bullying wasn’t really that serious. They were comfortable enough with the goings on to reveal them in their answers on a questionnaire: The boy was physically assaulted. Kicked, slapped, punched, held down. This happened daily. He was forced to eat dead bees. He was teased and verbally abused several times every day. He was trapped in toilet stalls. He was extorted for money regularly. All of this is bad enough. If you aren’t pissed off yet, however, the next detail would pretty much have to get you there.
With the knowledge and (Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!) participation of at least one teacher, this boy was made to practice and simulate several different methods of suicide.
No hyperbole. I am shaking with anger after writing that last sentence.
I don’t care how much money the boy’s family gets. It should be a lot, but…whatever. There will be no justice unless every single staff member at that school is run out of the education field for good. Fuck them all so much. I can’t even think rationally about what I hope happens, here.
Now…. I teach elementary school. For a bunch of reasons, I’m not going to go much further along explaining why, exactly, I feel the way I do to the extremes I do. I just don’t know what I’m going to do if I ever have to ask myself if there was more I could have done. I don’t know how I’m going to avoid it, though.
July 13, 2012