Friday 1 February 2013


So another Japanese kid has committed suicide because of issues at school. Like Japanese prime ministerial resignations or American gun massacres, it’s yet another of those events that seem to roll around so regularly that, while on an intellectual level you know you should care to some degree, in actuality it’s hard to summon up more than a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders. Even a real shrug feels like too much effort.

If these things happen once, they’re tragic (well, maybe not the resignations). Twice begins to look like carelessness, but these events occur so often it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that, indisputably terrible as they are for the individuals involved, they’re both symptomatic and directly resultant of wider issues in their respective societies.

It’s harder to care about those because they’re harder to fix. You can’t cure complex social problems just by taking a pill or castigating a single individual or sub-group, much as many would wish it were so. It’s simple for people to direct their rage at individuals who think continuing their golf round is an appropriate response to receiving news of their countrymen’s deaths, say, or who decide to walk into a cinema and shoot anything with a pulse, or go to work at a high school and knock about the very students they’re supposed to have a duty of care towards.

It’s simple because it’s right. These people should be held in contempt (to varying degrees, obviously). But a working definition of insanity is doing the same thing multiple times and expecting different results. Anger is wholly justified in these cases, but it doesn’t fix anything. We’re human; we have and should strive for a certain control over our more animal instincts, but we can’t deny them completely. We prefer the big statements to the unobtrusive background work. We love being wise after the fact. A firefighter who rescues a kid from a burning building gets rightly praised as a hero, but the legislator who passes regulations against shoddy construction practices and thus saves many more lives in the long run gets nothing, except maybe abuse from the construction lobby about rising costs and red-tape. The surgeon who performs your gastric bypass surgery is a god-like genius who gives you a new lease of life, but the Surgeon General who previously advised you to cut out the booze and fags and maybe get off your arse and take some exercise every once in a while is yet another interfering representative of the Nanny State wasting taxpayers’ time and money.

And so to Osaka, where Sakuranomiya High School is, after the intervention of Mayor Hashimoto, closing down its specialist Sports Course. This in response to that (again, undeniably tragic) case of a student killing himself, citing in his suicide note the physical punishment he suffered at the hands of a P.E. teacher there.

It’s highly doubtful that the dead student was the only one to receive such treatment, so what better way to support all the other students who were also victims than by scrapping the very thing they were willing to endure such abuse for? Nice work Toru! You’ve got seven fucking kids, how have you never heard about babies and bathwater?

I can’t stand the man, and it’s only as I write this that I’ve realized exactly why. Because he’s yet another instance of the quick-fix, the superficial overestimation of individual significance at the expense of addressing the more serious systemic problems. Yes, he’s something of an outsider to the Japanese political system with his youth, his Burakumin background, and his upstart party politics, but that’s merely a reflection of how myopically insular and inbred Japanese politics really is. He’s yet another arrogant prick who seems to want power simply because he feels he deserves it, as opposed to actually wanting to do something productive with it. He got elected 14 months ago, and I still don’t know what it is he really wants, apart from to see Osaka become a metropolitan prefecture and his name on the front pages as often as possible. That’s not quite the game-changing demolition of the status quo it’s often portrayed as.

Personal animosity aside (see how easy it is to let it obscure the real issue?), this is also the man who has previously endorsed physical discipline in schools (education is ‘20,000 percent coercion,’ apparently, and 0% maths), and who sent out city workers to check that teachers were not only standing during the national anthem, but also that their lips were moving too. It all trickles down. These teachers learned their ‘methods’ long before Hashimoto came to office so you can’t pin the blame entirely on his door, but they certainly didn’t have to look too far for confirmation of the acceptability of hastily applied strong-arm tactics when it comes to motivation and dispute resolution.

I won’t hit my children. It’s unacceptable because it’s a blank statement that force is the ultimate arbiter of any disagreement. I’m not so naïve as to believe that the use of force is never appropriate in any circumstance – sometimes it’s definitely the lesser evil – but using it is an outright admission that you’re incapable of dealing with the issue in any other way. It’s what you do when you’re all out of other options, when you either can’t or don’t wish to entertain any alternatives. Ultima ratio regum. If you’re in a position of authority or leadership and the first tool you regularly select from your Barrel O’ Persuasion is something to scrape the bottom of it with then (and here the barrel metaphor falls down) you’re a cunt.

More to the point, if you have somehow constructed an educational or home environment where physical aggression really is the least worst approach you could adopt then your other problems run deep and wide enough to make the Amazon look like a trickle of kitten’s piss. These are kids. These are my kids. I want to encourage them to think, to question, to argue for themselves and decide what’s right. I recognise I’m unlikely to have the patience to engage with that all the time, but what’s the point of even trying if they feel that all that really matters is who can hit the hardest?

It’s the same with my other kids, to an extent. I also want my students to think, to question, to argue, but it’s a forlorn hope most of the time. The concept of a single correct answer is so ingrained it’s nigh on impossible to push beyond it. And that right answer is, of course, whatever the teacher or textbook says it is. Discussion in Japan begins and ends with the Appeal to Authority. ‘Because I said so.’

This is why I loathe the senpai/kohai tradition. It’s culturally licensed bullying. Look at Shinsuke Shimada. He’s tearing apart a struggling comic’s act! Hilarious! Now he’s spouting off with his ‘wisdom’ and they all have to sit there nodding like he’s the fucking Buddha or something, because he’s the senpai and they have to listen. There’s no real tradition of satire in Japan, nothing where the weak mock the powerful because you don’t take the piss out of your senpai, regardless of how full of shit they might otherwise be, even if it’s notionally a comedy programme and your senpai’s boring the arse off everyone present. No, the ‘jokes’ revolve around physical violence and the powerful mocking the weak. Look! Now Shimada’s hitting a woman! Be still my aching sides.

I realize he’s gone now, and I’m not complaining, but it’s a hydra and if you cut him down another will rise in his place. I could name any number of other current programmes where the ‘comedy’ revolves around bullying the undeserving and the desperate. Shimada wasn’t the problem, the culture he was part of is the problem. A culture where bullying is not just tacitly accepted, but openly expected, endorsed, and approved of at all levels of society. I’m not holding out hope of that getting fixed any time soon. If ever increasing numbers of dead children can’t act as a spur to change, it’s hard to know what exactly will.


  1. As usual, you've nailed it, or at least we see things the same way.

    1. "The concept of a single correct answer is so ingrained it’s nigh on impossible to push beyond it. And that right answer is, of course, whatever the teacher or textbook says it is. Discussion in Japan begins and ends with the Appeal to Authority."

    2. "They all have to sit there nodding like he’s the fucking Buddha or something, because he’s the senpai and they have to listen."

    3. "If ever increasing numbers of dead children can’t act as a spur to change, it’s hard to know what exactly will."

    To which let me pile on with my notes.

    1. Which is why Japanese arts martial, aesthetic, construction and culinary are dead; and a democratic culture was still-born. In fact the entire culture is, in both a sense metaphorical and demographic, moribund.

    2. And nod they do, at the most specious shit. How many people would have the discipline to stop themselves becoming self-aggrandizing cranks with that kind of devotion? Refer to Sturgeon's Law ('90% of everything...'). Even this fucking language: 'keigo' et al. I have finally trained my J-wife not to refer to anyone as 'erai-hito' in my presence.

    3. Same as guns in America, poverty and concentration of wealth in the 'First World'...

    'Compassion fatigue'? I do not despair of fixable problems just because there are so many. I despair of them because nobody else appears to give a fuck, and I clearly do not have the charm to convince anyone to pitch in. Hard to get motivated for certain failure, and narcissistic too.

    Finally, Hashimoto needs a public and violent humiliation. It will not help his voters out of their idiocy. It will not save Japanese democracy, whatever that is. It will not help one bullied child or public servant. It will not stop "another arrogant prick who seems to want power simply because he feels he deserves it". However, a little schadenfreude would brighten the day.

    1. "How many people would have the discipline to stop themselves becoming self-aggrandizing cranks with that kind of devotion?"

      Thanks for this, it's a vital point. It's all too easy to focus on the guys at the top of the pile pissing all over everyone beneath them. But they only get to stay there because people below are holding them up. Even the most despotic dictator is reliant on his bodyguard not turning his gun around. The problems are bottom up as well as top down.

      Schadenfreude is the great leveller, isn't it? Gotta say I agree with you here as well.

  2. Good post.

    Hashimoto is just a flat-out populist. I have to admit I was taken aback a little when he first started going on, but most of it is empty rhetoric.

    I was taught an interesting rule at work, never answer back to a superior more than three times, even if you are right. So I don't anymore. I just agree with them and do what I wanted to do in the first place. But I have to say that although it is a strange way of going about things, it makes my life a lot easier.

    Like you said, bullying is rife throughout the whole society to the point where I don't think people even realise that it is bullying. The last job I was in and even to a certain extent in the current one, I have seen a few people's souls be broken slowly through overwork and no acknowledgement or praise. Giving more people freedom at work and reducing work hours would quite obviously boost the domestic economy and increase the birth rate. We all know that to the point where it doesn't need to be discussed. More free time, more boozing, shopping and fucking, right? But it is like the gun thing in America, anyone from most other countries in the world can see a solution so fucking obvious that it makes them want to scream, yet once you get inside the culture and you're surrounded by 'them' your logic is overwhelmed simply by the culturally influenced logic of those around you. If one comes here from abroad, you see some similar things here, especially towards sycophancy, overwork and blind dedication towards one's job, and not speaking up when things negatively affect one. If one is unable to internalise and accept this over the long-term, there is a substantial chance that they will either leave or have a breakdown from stress. Swimming upstream and all that.

    These things exist in Australia too, no doubt. But I don't notice them as much as an outsider and although I would be quite rationally willing to accept someone's opinion of what is wrong, I think I would feel something negative, perhaps annoyance or anger, on a non-rational level.

    I do find it incredible that this teacher probably won't be disciplined at all for striking someone, yet when a teacher loses some students' work from their car as a result of theft while they're at a pachinko parlour there is a big fuss over it. This was in the newspaper a couple of years ago. On NHK news this morning, they had an article on how one of their own employees got caught drink driving. Just a regular employee. National news? Give me a break.

    Good job on not hitting your children. Of course it is more difficult over the short-term, but like you said it will teach your kids that violence isn't the way.

    1. Sometimes I actually think the way Japanese society does things better than 'the West', especially in the way it names and recognises less palatable elements of social interaction. Tatame/honne, keigo and so on. Whereas back home we insist on this pretence of equality and honesty when we're all only too aware of the power differentials that exist and that we're being openly lied to.

      Then you realise that just naming these things does nothing to fix them, and most people aren't interested in fixing them. Acknowledging your problems doesn't excuse them. I am thoroughly fucking sick of raising an issue and being told, with a shrug of the shoulders, that 'this is Japan.'

      I'm sure I could give you something to chew on about Australia, if you really want it ;)

  3. When Hashimoto took over Osaka City some years ago, I thought he was heroic. Now? Is there a stronger phrase for "utter disappointment?" (Unless I'm somehow conflating different people. We Kyoto-ites looked down on earthy Osaka and didn't pay close attention at times.) I despair for Japan. If there is a single competent leader in that country, (s)he must be lonely.

    Not that my current homeland is heading anywhere but down, but at least here in Seattle we've kept the idiots on the other side of the mountains.

    1. He was the governor of Osaka prefecture for a while before he became mayor of the city, iirc. And yeah, when he first started it was quite nice just to see someone voicing a contrary opinion. Then you realised that all he really did was voice contrary opinions, and that gets old real fast...

  4. "you simply can't rise up without being as dirty as dirt."

    True, that. It's all relative though. Sometimes just stinking of a slightly different type of shit is enough to seem different, much as I wish it were otherwise.

  5. I have really enjoyed this post as well as the comments.

    "This is why I loathe the senpai/kohai tradition. It’s culturally licensed bullying."

    You are not alone.

    "Of all my experiences in Japan the most distasteful was having to witness some junior who hadn't the balls or the ability to fight back (or was reluctant to do so) accepting a beating administered by a senior as part of his initiation into dojo culture and etiquette, which essentially means that those on the bottom of the pyramidial dung-heap of rank and privilege must show subservient respect to those at the top."-S. Morris

    This 'tradition with an attitude', that has most recently been brought to the media's attention (again), is something I have never been comfortable with. Part of the tradition includes coaches kicking their athletes when they are down (or was it punching - in Sonoda's case?). Either way...

    From the outside, the idea that people in this wonderful island nation (even women) have equal rights comes from the veneer provided by their constitution. Over time, the kind of bullying that apparently thrives in the maintenance of harmony will become less of a surprise to the outside world despite the national investment in soft power (JET, etc.) thanks to people who are willing to at least talk about elephants; one of which is named 'senpai' and another named named 'kohai'. I feel like they are part of an open family secret that no one talks about.

    To understand about family secrets, most people would need to have read the small print.


    I just don't believe that this place is done for. No, not yet. Not by a long shot. Unfortunately.

    1. Thanks, gland you enjoyed it, though I must confess that wasn't really the emotion I was looking to evoke. You can tell I was being serious because there weren't any sarcastic captions under the pictures...

      Family secret is a good way of looking at it. The dodgy uncle who always drinks too much at family gatherings and gets a little too free with where he lets his hands wander. That's a very good way of looking at it, actually.

  6. I agree w/most of this, but I think the notion that Japan has very little tradition of satire seems a bit unfair. The "apprentice mocking the master" trope is pretty much a classic of kyogen, and there are tons of politically-themed poems/cartoons in papers that poke fun at authority figures. Most comedy presented on TV is just awful, though I think the situation outside of the crap on TV is largely better. Maybe I'm too much of an idealist.

    1. My experience with Japanese media doesn't extend much beyond the TV and occasional frustrating sojourns into the English language newspapers (which are so depressing I don't have the heart to try the Japanese versions even as a language learning exercise).

      This means that I'll happily stand corrected on that score, but first I might modify it to say no mainstream tradition of satire; I can't think of a Japanese equivalent of Have I Got News For You or The Daily Show, for example. I know newspapers are still more popular here than in other parts of the world, but TV is where the real numbers is at.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.