Ijime, or bullying, is sadly as much a part of Japanese school life as it is in any other country. In Japan, too, each school has a sort of social hierarchy, where the “cool kids” often pick on or exclude the nerdy/unsporty kids, and everyone gets shuffled around until the “stronger” kids are on the top and the “weaker” kids are on the bottom.
But in a society like Japan, where group mentality is so important, you’d be mistaken for thinking that after high school everyone just flutters off to become their own special snowflake and cast off the mental wounds of a tough adolescence.
In other words, if someone was bullied in school, there’s a chance they’ll keep on being bullied by the same people right on through their working days if they stay in the same town. So how does this “high school hierarchy” continue to affect the lives of adults in Japan?
This particular topic recently gained attention when sociologist Taiji Yamauchi began a debate on Twitter. Mr Yamauchi, who has conducted research at over 773 university campuses in Japan, postulates that those who were on the lower end of the social spectrum during their middle and high school days are significantly less likely to return to their home towns once having left. In the same way, hard-working students are more likely to move away for work in the first place in order to escape from the social system in which they were typecast as the “losers”.
山内太地 (@yamauchitaiji) March 07, 2015
Mr Yamauchi also suggests that, regardless of ability, people who were on the lower rungs of the social ladder at school will still suffer the effects of high school bullying even if they return and manage to get a good job in their hometown. The reason being that, in a work situation such as a city hall where many employees have been raised in the town, those who were part of the “upper class” at school will continue on in those same roles in the workplace, while any students from the “lower class” will struggle to get ahead.
In this kind of situation, it’s no wonder Japan’s young people are flocking to the big cities in order to reinvent themselves.
Describing what he refers to as a “school caste” system, Mr Yamauchi also remarks that academic ability isn’t necessarily a route to high school ostracization. Instead, he states that hard-working students fall into one of either two categories. Those who have good grades and are also good at sports are able to exist within the upper class, while those who have good grades and lack sporting ability are invariably relegated to the “lower class”.
Mr Yamauchi’s thoughts drew plenty of responses from Twitter users, many of whom were in agreement with his findings:
“This is eye-opening. I have friends who are still hung up on our middle-school days, and whenever we meet they bring the conversation back to that time and brag about how cool they were back then. It’s obvious my girl friends want to preserve that. I think it’s pathetic.”
“I can understand this. This is why I don’t like going back to my hometown. My parents are there, and it’s a beautiful area, but people’s attitudes don’t change. They turn their noses up at everyone who wasn’t ‘in’, even when they want something from them.”
“I think it’s unfortunately natural for relationships from school to carry on the way they were. That’s why people stay in Tokyo where [they went to university and] nobody’s going to bother them.”
“I completely agree with this. It was a huge relief for me to get out of my local community when I moved to a different high school. Then I went to university in Tokyo and now work there, but my parents are pressuring me to come back home – they don’t understand anything about the ‘school caste’ that’s still going strong in my hometown.”
“People who are still stuck in their high school glory days are unspeakably pathetic.”
While it’s interesting to consider the concept of a lingering “school caste system” as a possible factor in the increasing number of Japanese people leaving their home towns for big cities, we very much doubt this is a phenomenon that’s exclusive to Japan. After all, most of us know at least one person who peaked in high school and didn’t really go on to great things after that. To be honest, we’d rather take our chances in the big city too rather than wind up working for the people who were mean to us in high school…