During the Fall 2017 anime season, I found myself watching an episode of March comes in like a lion, one of the few animes that will always be at the top of my all-time favorites list. During the second season of this show, there is an episode that really hits to the heart of the matter I want to discuss here. In episode 26, one of the main characters, Hinata, finds herself the brunt of attention from a bunch of bullies. Her best friend is chased out and forced to transfer, her shoes are stolen out of her locker, and she has to watch as everyone in the class turns their back on her for fear of their own safety. But as Hinata’s arc progresses, what we slowly see develop is actually a fairly positive message about bullying and how to overcome it. With stories of bullying and suicide cases in Japan popping up in the news, these episodes made me wonder if the mangaka, Chica Umino, wanted Hinata’s story to be a wider message to her readers, and if so, we first need to take a look at the actual climate around bullying in Japan.
In a recent article from the Japan Times, they report that cases of bullying in Japanese schools has hit a record high of over 320,000 in the 2016 academic year. This is up 43.8 percent from the year before, partly due to recent efforts to detect these cases early. The education ministry noted that 400 cases in 374 schools amounted to what they called “serious situations” where a student faced “significant mental and physical suffering.” The International Business Times also noted in a 2015 article that September 1st, the start of a new school term, has the highest rate of teen suicide than any other day of the year. They also pointed out that while the overall suicide rates in Japan have fallen, suicide among students under 18 has actually risen. Many of these deaths have been attributed to bullying.
In a blog post by a teacher working in a Japanese school, we come to see just how serious and widespread the bullying can be. At one point he writes: “Not just one or two kids, five of them. The victim would try to work through the conversation anyway, but the kids were relentless. When he finally walked away, another kid – apparently angry at this kid’s social weakness – pushed him into a wall and wouldn’t let him move. About 3-4 boys were actively bullying him, while 5-7 stood laughing and cracking jokes. Half of the class was participating in the activity and the rest were observing with mixed reactions.” This example displays the kind of bullying students in Japan face and gives us a clear division between what a student might face in American schools versus Japanese. The main difference I see and what the teacher is pointing out here is the tendency of bullying to encompass the whole class and even, as we’ll come to later, the teachers themselves. The author of the blog goes on to point out that about 80 percent of all bullying is termed collective, or a group of students (sometimes the whole class) against one student, and 90 percent lasts more than a week. What’s made even more striking about this blog post is the examples he gives:
One student was, over months, taunted, then beaten, then forced to shoplift items for the bullies, and eventually forced to eat dead bees. That student sparked a recent national outcry on bullying when he committed suicide at the age of 13. Teachers at the school were aware of the problem, but had only responded with a verbal warning.
One student came to class to find his desk had been transformed into a memorial, with a wreath and a picture of him in the center, incense lit and a condolence card filled with mocking messages from students and some teachers, including his 57-year-old homeroom teacher who was aware the student hadn’t died.
In an article about bullying of Fukushima survivors, Mitsuru Taki of the Ministry of Education makes this comment: “Bullies in Japan are not rotten apples…It is a group phenomenon.” This is reinforced by a culture of conformity encouraged in many schools, from school uniforms to hair color to group activities, that makes individual differences stand out all the more. The culture also puts pressure on teachers with little training in bullying prevention to further reinforce group conformity (or class harmony as it’s sometimes called) in order to keep classrooms under control. This, in turn, prompts the singling out of students perceived to be the problem — who are often those being bullied — to push the idea of “adapt or quit” as one student in the article was told. An anti-bullying law in 2013 that required schools to report cases of bullying was one of the recent efforts to curb this problem, but incidents still go under-reported, teachers are still under-trained, and bullies are often allowed to go unpunished.
There are a few key instances where I think Umino is really trying to push the message that bullying is a serious problem, leading me to believe that this arc is serving the wider purpose of discussing the widespread bullying in Japan. In episode 26, we get a comment from Hinata’s grandfather talking about all the stories on the news he’s been seeing about bullying, paired with praise for her actions in still sticking by Chihiro. In Rei’s conversation with his homeroom teacher, Hayashida, he makes the point of pulling up a quick search for bullying on his computer, noting the hundreds of results he gets. I can say the same of my own search of news coverage of Japan. A quick Google search for “bullying in Japan” pulls up more than 10 million results, many of the front-page results from the Japan Times or Reddit threads discussing bullying stories. Many of these stories we only hear of in the worst cases–when the child commits suicide. At one point, Hayashida makes a comment to the effect of “Chihiro was really lucky to have someone like Hina. Otherwise it could’ve had a sadder ending,” and I think this really speaks to the kind of message Umino is trying to get across in this particular arc.
The bullying starts with Chihiro being ostracized from the class. The bullies begin throwing her shoes in the toilet, making her do all the cleaning chores, and even foisting their sewing projects off on her. It becomes so intense that her mother pulls her out of school and has her transfer to a new school further away. The bullying then becomes transferred to Hinata because of her willingness to stick by Chihiro through all of the trouble, effectively becoming her only friend left in the class. When Chihiro leaves though, Hinata becomes completely alone, constantly ignored and made the butt of jokes and rumors. They steal her shoes, write nasty things about her on her desk and chalkboard, and accuse her of stealing the teacher’s supplies. Through it all–just like with Chihiro–no one is willing to speak up in her defense and the whole class continues to ignore her. It becomes a culture of fear and intimidation with a few students pressuring the rest to, in effect, become bullies in their own right, the threat of becoming the next victim hanging over their heads.
Collective group bullying is front and center in this story, with Hinata becoming the target of her whole class and even the teacher. When she tries to bring the problem up to her teacher, we get the standard victim-blaming accusations that many students in Japan hear: “Why aren’t you getting along with everyone?”, “Why can’t you be more cooperative?” The teacher’s focus is on class harmony, something that she may feel pressure from the school to maintain, which turns into stamping out anything that threatens that harmony. The conversation then turns to what the victim did to bring this on themselves and not how did this start or how can we end the bullying and bring the class back to normal. It becomes an easier solution to try and change one person rather than the whole class. However, I think Umino used the juxtaposition of Hinata’s homeroom teacher and the head teacher to point out the futility of this kind of thinking. Ultimately, the homeroom teacher collapses from the strain of trying to maintain this forced harmony only to be replaced with the head teacher who actively takes a role in stamping out the real bullies. In the end, it’s the head teacher who returns harmony to the class. And, in the end, it is HInata who is praised for breaking away from the collective and speaking up, because as Hayashida points out: “The worst thing she could do was not tell anyone”.
The “This Japanese Life” blog I mentioned above, also notes that in a Mainichi Shimbun survey they found 70 percent of teachers would like to do more to prevent bullying, but just don’t have the time or resources. Smaller staff sizes, more paperwork, and other job related stresses prevent teachers from taking the time to address bullying in an effective manner. The author also mentions that many promotions within the school system are tied to performance which is then tied to how well you can control your classroom. In an effort to make it look like they have better control of their class than they may actually have, many teachers will not report episodes of bullying or will downplay them as harmless pranks or misunderstandings. Where respect for the teacher is already at a minimum, it becomes that much easier to ignore the problem for fear of causing more problems for their career. In extreme cases, a student is singled out by the teacher as the “class clown” in order to control the flow of energy and attention.
In depicting Hinata as fighting back against her bullies and the head teacher’s no-nonsense take on the events happening around him, Umino is proposing a different way look at and deal with bullying. Through Hinata’s actions and the resultant praise she gets, the mangaka is effectively saying “stand up for yourself, speak up, don’t become part of the crowd.” The other students in the class come to this realization as well after the head teacher steps in and they begin to talk about what was happening in their class. We also see a group of girls come up and apologize to Hinata, trying to form a new friendship. In addition, by splitting up the class and talking to the students individually, the head teacher begins to break down the pressure of class conformity and power structures that had reinforced the collective mindset of the class as whole. In the end, a different kind of class harmony is established, one that is more positive and reaffirming.
In the process of discussing bullying, Umino also presents us with ways in which we can begin to combat these kinds of events ourselves through the advice that Hayashida gives Rei and the effect that Hinata’s family has on her mental well-being. Throughout the arc, there is a sense that there really is no perfect answer for what to do in the event of bullying, but there are some key do’s and don’ts. For one, a strong support network is key, something that Hinata finds in her family, Rei, and Takahashi who forces her to play baseball with him at lunch. Family provides a base filled with normal routines and a sense of acceptance not found at school. They also provide a way to talk and vent about problems they’re having so that the victim doesn’t wind up suffering in silence. Hayashida proposes that the first step in helping a bullying victim is to really sit down with them and get their opinion on what they want to do next. Moving too fast can cause even more problems leading to further ostracization by the class. This is why Rei’s plan of winning a whole bunch of tournaments and using that money to fund Hinata’s school and whatever other expenses wouldn’t have worked, because that’s not something she would’ve wanted to do.
The head teacher’s methods were also fairly effective. By looking to the source of the bullying and not blaming the victim, he was able to bring a stop to it fairly quickly. By separating the bully’s from one another, he is able to break this sense of group-think and collectivist mindset, which allows him to better reason with each bully to find out their motives. In removing the bullies from the room, he is also removing the top level of power-hierarchy, freeing the other students to finally speak their mind without fear. However, what we also get in this whole process is a closer look at the main bully, Takagi, and her motives for bullying. For one, we see that she doesn’t have a secure support network as her mother refuses to believe her daughter could have done anything wrong. This is made more evident by the fact that Takagi comes out and basically says she’s nervous about the future that she feels she’s being forced into without a guarantee of payoff. In one survey, researchers found that 61 percent of Japanese students cited stress as the leading cause behind their bullying. But, though she gives us a closer look at Takagi’s motives, Umino doesn’t condone them. The head teacher comes right out and basically says “So? What does this have to do with Hinata?”
Throughout this arc, Chica Umino presents us with an in depth and relatable look at bullying in Japan. From the collectivist mindset that develops in many classrooms, to untrained teachers too stressed to deal with these cases, to the victims themselves. Much of what she writes comes straight out the news, originating from school systems that tend to prefer conformity over supporting individual students. In the process, Hinata’s story of bullying in March comes in like a lion provides a positive take on a problem that for too often ends in tragedy while discussing some key do’s and don’ts for bullying victims and their families. It becomes an inspirational story of holding fast to what you believe in and how a simple thing like sitting with someone at lunch or speaking up when you see something can mean the world for someone.
Edit: I just recently found out March comes in like a lion and its staff partnered with the Japanese government to combat bullying through a poster campaign and interviews.
~~Thanks for Reading!~~
Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress for all Bloom Reviews content updates and news!