‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down’: Bullying in Japan
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‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down’: Bullying in Japan

In Australia, we call it ‘tall poppy syndrome’. In Japan, we say deru kugi ha utareru – ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’.

Although slightly different, both are expressions that reinforce the importance of ‘fitting-in’.

In Australia, the phrase ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is usually used when referring to bringing an individual back down to size, after they become arrogant from performing better than their peers. The phrase reflects Australia’s convict past where social betterment and middle-class status were not necessarily met with welcome arms.

But in Japan, the nail that sticks out can be hammered down for any reason – better grades, worse grades, making a mistake in a team activity. So in a country where an unspoken rule of conformity is combined with a strict hierarchical structure, bullying – or ijime – becomes an ingrained, almost tolerated phenomenon.

That was until recently.

Several days ago Japanese police finally began investigating the alleged bullying behind the suicide of a 13-year old boy, in Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture.

After the junior high school student jumped off a 14-story building last October, his parents filed damages against the classmates who reportedly abused him, accusing them of causing his suicide.

Police became involved in the matter after a series of bomb threats were made against the school and local government because of their negligence in the case.

The Japan Times reports that the victim’s school hid student surveys, which concluded that routine bullying was a problem while 15 students who were interviewed by police reported that classmates forced the boy to “practice” committing suicide.

Ministry officials are also joining in the investigation.

Kyodo News reports that in an “unusual move”, the education ministry will send an official to Otsu City to offer advise on the matter as the “school and board of education cannot solve the problem on their own”.

Although translated into English as ‘bullying’, ijime generally connotes the aggressive behaviour of a group, directed at an individual or bullying from a superior, often performed in front of a group to make the victim feel even more inferior.

As a result, Japan has recently begun to crack down on peer pressure-type bullying. In addition to the media, police and political attention this case is receiving, words like aru-hara (alcohol harassment), pawa-hara (power harassment) and seku-hara (sexual-harassment) have become a standard part of teachers’ vocabulary at university.  

In 2009, a record 61,000 cases of ijime were recorded by the education ministry. While some commentators worry this reflects an increasing trend of bullying at school, many believe that students and teachers are now more aware of what constitutes as inappropriate behavior and are more willing to report it.

A similar trend has also been seen in domestic violence cases.

Japan Today reports that a survey by the National Police Agency revealed that domestic violence cases were up 46.3 per cent since 2011.

So is it possible that bullying and power harassment is becoming less accepted in Japanese society? It’s hard to say. But perhaps this investigation into the Otsu City high schooler’s death will prompt further examination into bullying in Japan and eventually make it so.