The Language Teacher
November 2000

Bullying and Biracial Children in Japan

Frank E. Daulton & Seki Akinori

Niigata Women's College

Japanese society recognizes bullying (or ijime) as a grave problem, yet a particular group especially vulnerable to bullying and common targets of it has been overlooked. This paper, after an overview of bullying in Japan, will examine the particular case of bullying and half-Japanese children. Finally, it will introduce some strategies for international couples to prepare their children against bullying. The comments below are generalizations and do not apply to all people or situations. Nonetheless, they are substantially accurate, and JALT members, as teaching professionals and parents, should be well-informed so as to improve the educational environment for all students.

Overview of Bullying in Japan

The Seriousness of Bullying in Japan

Bullying in Japan is a grave problem whose extent is not yet understood. One in three elementary and junior high school students has been bullied, but more than one-third did not report it to anyone (figures cited by the U.S. State Department, 1999). The unreliability of statistics is exacerbated by the schools' desire to stop word of bullying from spreading outside; one parent comments, ". . . . schools are frightened by charges of ijime" (Otake, 1999 p. 33). Bullying takes many forms (Noujuu, 1997, p. 89) and these include: from verbal teasing to threats of physical violence; from hiding belongings to vandalizing them; from cool treatment by a few to complete ostracism. Sometimes the bullying seems pointless, other times something is extorted. The harm is difficult to estimate, but the about 10 bullying-related suicides per year (Sakai, 1996) can be considered the tragic tip of an iceberg of suffering.

The Characteristics of Bullying in Japan

Everywhere bullied students are usually those seen as different or weak (Olweus, 1995); however certain aspects of bullying appear exaggerated by Japan's culture. Some scholars even assert that "the very dark and cruel nature" of the emotional and physical abuse is particularly endemic to Japanese education (see Omori, 1998), thus the Japanese term ijime is often used even in English discussion.

Nonaka (1999; cited in Ryan) cites four "cultural factors" in Japan that worsen bullying: the high pressure put on children; the large student-to-teacher ratio; the belief that seeking help is shameful; and Japan's homogenous and collectivist culture, which stresses uniformity. Bullying in Japan is also distinguished by the fact that it is done by groups against one or few targets (Omori; Ryan, 1999 p. 2), making the victims more helpless than in any other country (Smith, 1995).

Moreover, bullying in Japan involves many passive observers (Bethe, 1999). In fact, 51% of students try not to become involved in bullying when they see it, and 64% find it exciting to watch (Ryan, 1999). Most observers don't defend the victim because "they fear they will be perceived as being 'the same type of person' as the ijime victim" (Omori). Bullying increases through elementary school as the children begin to form cliques, described by one parent as the gang age (Jonnes, 1999), and incidents rise dramatically when children enter middle school, peaking in the first year of junior high school (Takahashi & Vaipae, 1996; Ryan, 1999).

The most common form of bullying in elementary and junior high school is verbal, whereas in high school it is physical (Noujuu, 1997). Indeed incidents of physical abuse increase with the students' age (Kumagai, 1996). Although direct violence is the most visible form of bullying, the most damaging may be indirect -- ostracism. According to Fried & Fried (1996), "the withholding of relationship can be far more punitive than any act of meanness" (p. 2), and particularly in group-oriented Japan, being shunned can be emotionally devastating. (1) Unfortunately, ostracism is the second most common form of bullying in elementary school, becoming less common thereafter, (Noujuu, 1997).

Many children are often ignored by their classmates and sometimes by teachers for extended periods. One parent (of a half-Japanese daughter) writes, ". . . . there was a strong understanding among the girls that they were not to associate with (my daughter) in any way and that any girl who did so would be ostracized" (Otake, 1999, p. 30). The result of bullying is often the victim refusing to go to school from fear and shame (e.g. Smith, C., 1999), a phenomenon common enough to have its own name, toukou kyohi. Over the past few decades, absenteeism from this school phobia has doubled at elementary schools and tripled at junior highs (Kumagai, 1996). A final characteristic of Japanese bullying is that, more than in other countries, victims are expected to defend themselves. There exists a widespread belief that the bullied is at least partially at fault for not defending him or herself (Ryan, 1989).

Bullying and Biracial Children

The number of children who have one parent that is not Japanese is unknown because, for counting purposes, they are not considered foreign. In 1998 there were 29,636 new marriages between Japanese and foreigners (twice as many as ten years previously).

Factors making biracial children vulnerable

Given the nature of bullying, the characteristics that distinguish them from other Japanese make biracial children likely targets. Likewise their dual heritage and search for identity make them more vulnerable emotionally. According to Noguchi (1996), because of the homogeneity of Japanese society, half-Japanese children have a strong desire to eliminate the things that alienate them from their peers (p. 34). Takahashi & Vaipae (1996) reported the case of a half-Japanese girl who asked her foreign father to not come to a school event because he didn't look Japanese (p. 147). The resistance of such children to the language of their non-Japanese parent increases dramatically upon entering schools and does not recede until the teenage or adult years (Kittaka, 1997). Moreover, many half-Japanese children attempt to hide their non-Japanese physical traits; for example children with curly or fair hair often try to alter it to be more accepted by classmates (see Kamada, 1999, p. 5; Jonnes, 1999, p. 15). These children's desire to be like everyone else is frustrated by society. A parent reports that her half-Japanese daughter felt that, ". . . people were constantly questioning the naturalness of her existence" by pointing out, directly and indirectly, her foreignness (Smith,1999, p. 49).

Gender also effects the treatment of such biracial children. McMahill (2000) found more accounts of the bullying of half-Japanese boys than of half-Japanese girls, but wonders whether this is because girls are more often indirectly bullied, and these cases are sometimes not reported. This is substantiated by Ross (1996), who found that, throughout the world, boys use direct bullying four times as much as girls and are victims of direct bullying twice as often, and that girls experience more indirect bullying. One mother of a half-Japanese child believes ostracism to be most common with girls, and she notes the difficulty of fighting back against such indirect attack (Otake, 1999). If half-Japanese children are targeted for bullying because of being multiracial, McMahill asserts that "the bullying could be an instance of racism, or at least a challenge to the child's right of membership in Japanese society."

Preparing Children against Bullying

Some valuable literature does exist concerning bullying and half-Japanese children. For instance, 11 accounts were published in a collection entitled, Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives (Gillis-Furutaka,1999). Through the experiences of these multiracial families whose children have been bullied, much can be deduced about how such families should interact with other parents, school teachers and administrators. For instance, foreign parents need to understand the Japanese way of resolving problems, and keep good relations with even disagreeable people (see Takahashi & Vaipae,1996, p. 144-145). Furthermore, four strategies for parents to prepare their half-Japanese children for Japanese schools can be deduced from these testimonials when considered together with published research.

Keeping open the lines of communication

"What I think is most important is to be able to keep open lines of communication with our own children so that we know at all times how they feel," a parent of a half-Japanese child writes (Kamada, 1999, p. 7). Through communication, children can also feel their parents' love and support. A half-Japanese adult adds, "If you have love, you can love others . . . . and you can love yourself, too" (Ashimori, 1999, p. 25). Good communication also raises children's awareness of when they are being bullied (Fried & Fried, ). Suffering, which increases over time, is not easily perceived by the victims. Likewise, parents need to warn their children that verbal abuse can sometimes be camouflaged to appear as concern (p. 42). Good communication is not easily accomplished. Children have a tendency to feel that confiding with parents about bullying is shameful {see Nonaka, 1999 (cited in Ryan)} and they therefore endure the abuse in silence. A survey of Japanese parents and students revealed this pattern. In elementary school, regarding students who reported being bullied in the current school year, only 37% of their parents were aware (Noujuu, p. 193). In junior high school, the awareness of parents' fell to 33.9%. In high school, it was an abysmal 17.7%. Unfortunately, this enduring in silence does not necessarily mean the children are standing up for themselves.

Encouraging children to stand up for themselves

A mayor wrote, "Bullied children lack will-power and a sense of self-reliance" ("Saitama Mayor," 1997). In this comment, for which he was criticized by educators, -- there was an important kernel of truth: passive victims are easy targets.

One parent comments, "The best way to address these problems is to get children to try to resolve them by themselves" (Wanner, 1999, p. 41). This family enrolled their son in judo classes, " . . . . where he would develop skills to protect himself from small groups of attackers." Another father advised his son, "to not start fights, but to punch back hard if he ever got hit" because this father believes a child's showing weakness is the " . . . . most dangerous thing because it (sets) a precedent and make(s) the child a target" (Satori, 1999 p. 44).

A mother explains that when parents intervene to deal with bullies, they are confirming the weakness of their own child. "The children's world has a set of rules of its own, quite different from those of the adult world. We grown-ups should try to preserve the 'balance' within it by not interfering" (p. 13). Although many of the 11 parents who wrote in Bullying in Japanese Schools felt that children themselves should be encouraged to "fight back," this was not always the case, with gender playing a role. An aggressive response was encouraged mostly in boys, and avoidance the preferred strategy for girls (McMahill, 2000). Several parents mentioned the belief that "boys will be boys" and that peer abuse was a rite of passage or form of communication. On the other hand, only one girl was encouraged to fight back, in this case verbally (Bethe, 1999), while three girls stopped their being bullied by changing schools (Cooney, 1999; Otake, 1999; Smith, 1999).

A distinction must be made between standing up for oneself and violence. Parents should talk about alternatives to violence; especially young men need to know how to obtain approval without resorting to it (Fried & Fried, 1996). Finally, although retaliation of any kind can escalate the cycle of revenge, children who don't stand up for themselves are the most likely to receive further aggression because they are viewed as easy targets.

Building self-esteem

Helping half-Japanese children esteem their identity is crucial for their thriving in the Japanese school environment. Many children have trouble accepting their unique identity, neither Japanese nor foreign (see Yoshida, 1999). McMahill (2000) writes that parents' positively managing their half-Japanese children's identities as well as their own encourages bilingualism and multiculturalism. Moreover, many parents teach their children to not consider themselves as being half Japanese, but as being both or double (e.g. Tabohashi, 1999, p. 42). One mother says, "Our children are not 'half,' they're 'both,' which means fully Japanese as well" (Inui, 1996, p. 67). Parents should likewise help half-Japanese children to esteem the physical characteristics that distinguish them. One parent pointed out cool people with curly hair to her half-Japanese son, who was ashamed of his (Kamada, 1999, p. 5). These included Albert Einstein and Jesus.


In sum, biracial children and those who care for them must discourage bullying. By doing so, society itself may become kinder, wiser and happier. Bullying is a symptom of our misplaced values; tolerance is an expression of our true sophistication. By understanding also the bullying of any biracial children in Japan, we can take an important step forward.


Ashimori, S. (1999). Bilingualism and school bullying [Monograph]. Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives, 7, 22-25.

Bethe, M. (1999). Putting things in perspective [Monograph]. Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives, 7, 34-36.

Cooney, B. (1999). Teachers' roles in forming attitudes to difference [Monograph]. Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives, 7, 36-38.

Fried, S., & Fried, P. (1996). Bullies and victims: Helping your child through the schoolyard battlefield. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc.

Gillis-Furutaka, A. (Ed.) (1999). Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives. Monographs on bilingualism no. 7. Osaka: Bilingualism Special Interest Group of the Japan Association for Language Teaching.

Inui, W. (1996). Tales out of school. AF Journal, 160, 66-67.

Jonnes, M. S. (1999). The Lord of the Flies [Monograph]. Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives, 7, 7-16.

Kamada, L. D. (1999). The universality of bullying [Monograph]. Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives, 4, 4-7.

Kittaka, L. (1997). The foreign wife in American-Japanese intercultural marriage: Comparing the experiences of American women in Tokyo and Japanese women in Buffalo, New York. AFW Journal 167, 46-52.

Kumagai, F. (1996). Unmasking Japan Today: The impact of traditional values on modern Japanese society. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

McMahill, C. (2000). The construction of social identities in bilingual families: Narratives on white parents in Japan. Unpublished manuscript.

Nonaka, A. (1999, November). The effectiveness of an anti-bullying intervention video on Japanese elementary school children. Paper given at the 29th Convention of the Communication Association of Japan. Hamamatsu, Japan.

Noujuu, S. (1997). Kodomo wo ijimete shinasenai. Tokyo: Jiyukokuminsha.

Olweus, D. (1995). Bullying at school. Cambridge, Ma: Blackwell.

Omori, M. (1998). Message from Advisory Board Member: Ijime (Bullying). [On-line]. Child Research Net. <>

Otake, M. (1999). Ostracism [Monograph]. Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives, 4, 25-34.

Ross, D.(1996). Childhood bullying and teasing: What school personnel, other professionals, and parents can do. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Ryan, S. M. (1999). Bullying in Japanese schools [Monograph]. Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives, 4, 2-4.

Sakai, R. (1996). Suicide by a group of fllies in a school. Ningen Bunka, 11, 11-42.

Smith, C. (1999). Making problems work for your family. [Monograph]. Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives, 4, 47-49.

Smith, H. (1995). The myth of Japanese homogeneity: Social ecological diversity in education and socialization. Commack, NY: Nova Science.

Tabohashi, J.(1999). Things are not always as they seem [Monograph]. Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives, 4, 41-42.

Takahashi, M., & Vaipae. S.(1996). Gaijin seito ga yatte kita. Tokyo: Taishukan Shoten.

Tanaka, K. (1996). Tabunkai Kyouiku no Sekaiteki Churyu: Nakanisha Shuppan. Kyoto.

U.S. Department of State Japan Country Report on Human Rights. Practices for 1998. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, February 26, 1999.

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1. For a compelling account of ostracism in Japanese literature, see Haruki Murakami's short story "The Silence," which appears is his collection of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes.

Frank E. Daulton and Seki Akinori teach in the English Department of Niigata Women's College. Both have extensive experience teaching at different levels in the Japanese public school system. As both are the fathers of young "halfchildren, they are concerned about the situation of biracials in this system. <>; <>

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