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Editorial: Japan must improve response to bullying by sticking with victim

Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology began deliberations on clarifying the problems and making improvements on the responses of schools and education boards to bullying. An expert panel will draw up measures by the end of the academic year.

    The Act for the Promotion of Measures to Prevent Bullying defines damage that poses significant danger to children's lives as "serious situations." If there is reason to suspect that bullying is the cause of such damage, the law stipulates that an investigative body promptly be set up and that light be shed on the facts surrounding the case.

    In the 2020 academic year, 514 serious situations were confirmed across the country. However, schools and boards of education were slow to respond or did so inappropriately, resulting in a series of cases in which a sense of distrust deepened among victims.

    In March, a second-year junior high school student from Asahikawa, Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture, was found dead from hypothermia. Her mother had consulted the girl's school repeatedly starting around two years ago about her daughter being bullied, and the student had attempted suicide, but neither the school nor the board of education recognized that any bullying had taken place.

    When a sixth-grade girl in the Tokyo suburb of Machida left behind a note about being bullied before she killed herself in November 2020, it took at least three months before the board of education acknowledged the case as a "serious situation" and began an investigation.

    It has been said that the blundering responses of schools and boards of education occur against a backdrop of a "don't rock the boat" attitude, with schools not wanting to admit the existence of serious bullying.

    First, the intent of the law must be thoroughly driven home on the ground. On top of that, there needs to be a public mechanism through which victims of bullying can file a complaint if they are dissatisfied with the response given by schools or boards of education.

    How to ensure that the investigation is fair and neutral is another challenge.

    Based on the education ministry's guidelines, investigations are carried out by a third-party panel comprising lawyers, academic experts and others, but there are many cases in which local experts with strong ties to local governments make up the majority of the panel's members.

    It is important that people appointed to serve on a panel are people whom the victims will find acceptable. The panel must explain to the victims how the investigation will be conducted, and they must provide the victims with progress reports conscientiously.

    The victims must not be hurt even further due to an investigation. Unless the schools and boards of education dispel distrust and put up cooperative fronts, smooth investigations will not be possible.

    Improving responses to bullying must start with reconfirming the importance of sticking by the victim's side.

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