E-Mail Interview with Ms. Kathleen Morikawa,
newspaper columnist for The Daily Yomiuri
May 3, 2010

In your newspaper column, you have often made reference to the amount of ijime or bullying on Japanese television. Could you give some examples from the different genres (i.e., variety, talk show, drama, etc.) and explain what you feel is the matter with these programs?

First off, I should note that my answers are not based on any academic expertise on the topic of ijime. They are just my observations from 25 years of monitoring the Japanese media.

It is also necessary to define the term ijime itself in the context of a society that is eternally ranking everything (and everyone in relation to everyone else, in part so they know what language form to use with them), a society that puts great emphasis on how things look rather than how they are. In such a society, it is almost natural that various forms of ijime (from bullying to verbal harassment to unstated but generally understood implications) are going to be pervasive and almost just an accepted part of how society works.  So the problem is where to draw the line and say “oh yes, that is definitely bullying” and not just “oh yeah, that’s the way things are.”

Any nation’s TV is a reflection of that nation’s society. I always refer to Japanese TV as the best Japanese sociology book available and it is constantly being updated. In that respect, it’s better even than the Internet. So, I think the first issue is not just to give examples but to define what constitutes ijime in your view and in the view of the Japanese.   Once you set your parameters, there are endless examples to choose from. Ijime pervades the medium just as it pervades the society. The most obvious examples are the horrible variety show antics and school bullying dramas. These are easy to spot and obvious to everyone.  What also concerns me are the more insidious forms of bullying, the less obvious things just below the surface. For example, a talk show host might point out a guest’s physical attributes or lack of them (big or flat chest, long nose, bad skin, weight) and make fun of them just to keep the chatter (can’t call it conversation) going or to deflate the guest’s ego or to get a few cheap laughs. Just a general sense of disrespect for other people is more common now than it once was on TV.  Even icons and role models garner a lot less respect than they once did. So can the average person expect much better treatment on TV?

One example, I saw shortly after receiving your email was the very popular “Darts no Tabi” show where Joji Tokoro throws a dart at the map and a filming crew heads out to the usually remote spot and just stops everyone they see and asks “what are you doing?” It’s sort of Twitter on wheels with a camera. Anyhow, they found two happy third grade girls on their way home from school. One was a little on the chubby side and the first thing this interviewer does is point it out and comment that she looked about two sizes bigger than his own (prejudiced) view of what third graders should look like. She laughed it off as she is probably used to such treatment but I think that is a form of verbal harassment that is entirely unnecessary; but it is so ingrained in the local culture few viewers probably noticed.  In the Japanese context, ijime is generally perceived to be a really terrible beating, bullying that extends over months or years or treatment that is so debasing one feels like they’ve had a major public humiliation. (And there is also a sentiment among some that surviving such incidents makes a person stronger and helps them show their mettle. This helps condone its continuance, I think.) Fortunately, a lot of ijime does not rise to that level but does that not make it ijime? Any behavior that treats other disrespectfully is a form of ijime, isn’t it?

On the variety shows, ijime is regularly portrayed as entertainment. Can ijime be considered entertainment if the victims are either willing participants or don’t seem to mind?

No, I don’t think it should be considered entertainment for no other reason than it sets a bad example for the young and teaches them to accept ijime as entertainment. The entertainment industry clearly disagrees because there is obviously a segment of the audience that enjoys watching ijime and this brings in ratings. But if you look a little deeper, it is easy to find magazine articles where young comic talents admit to having been scared, in fear of their lives even, in some of these pranks and debased and humiliated but they usually say they feel they had to go along because their career (if you can call being a talento a career?) depended on it. I think they see it as a part of paying one’s dues starting out in the tough geinokai world. I’ve noticed when talents do agree to do some of the more dangerous things (like the ultramarathons or eating nothing but artery-clogging cholesterol packed cakes for three days or something like that) that it often results in an obvious increase in on-air opportunities for them.

Another issue is that nowadays they are paid so little, many are in debt or just scraping along and just getting a few seconds on TV doing anything is considered the means to survive or even triumph.

People do get hurt both emotionally and physically. In the last decade, it seems the shows have moved beyond slapstick silliness to some pretty perverted stuff inflicting pain and suffering. It’s disturbing and more and more viewers are complaining but with few results.

Do you think that good-natured ad hominem attacks on particular individuals (what we would call roasting someone in the U.S.) have a place on television?

It depends. If it’s basically good-natured there might be a place for it. It would probably be healthy if there was even more political comedy in Japan. Gradually in the last few years, it has begun to appear though and that is a good sign.

Many of the celebrities or talento hosting programs that feature ridicule and bullying are very popular, aren’t they? I recall one guy from 1999 or 2000 who had a regular show called London Hearts who was given the honor of hosting the New Year’s Kohaku program one year.

Yes, some of them are and I have no idea why. Perhaps, both the tormenters and the tormented can identify with them in a way. London Boots are among the worst in this regard and are especially prone to a very nasty emceeing style where denigrating guests, panelists and others is just the format, sort of mindless abuse.

Could you comment about the kind of programs that examine the behavior of unnamed individuals within Japanese society? These are sometimes conducted in a talk show format that give the air of journalistic professionalism to what is ostensibly a thinly veiled attack on someone.

No, I am not really sure what you mean here.

In your view, should such TV programs that obliquely refer to private individuals who can be readily identified be considered libelous or slanderous?

I am not really sure what you mean here.

Have there ever been occasions where the people being ridiculed on television have taken issue with the programming or the networks?

Can’t think of a recent example offhand.

Aside from the programming available on NHK, could you comment about the educational value of what’s on television?

That’s a biggie and takes us back to the whole question of “what is education?” Anything can be educational. Sometimes we learn more from bad examples than good.  As far as programs that purport to entertain and educate called “infotainment” in Japanese, there are many shows that explain things quite well. Nowadays, most of these are on in the daytime. Evening TV is pretty much a wasteland of mindless entertainment for those who just want to veg out at the end of a hard day.

One problem with presenting purportedly educational material about health and nutrition on TV is there is a general believe/acceptance that what is presented on TV is always the truth. If someone comes on saying a certain diet or food (say bananas) is good for you, people will follow en masse and you won’t be able to find a banana in a store in a few days. It’s spooky that a lot of only partially true information takes on a very long TV shelf life.

Most of the attempts to deal with the problem of ijime in Japanese schools have focused on such things as school culture, childhood psychology, and adolescent behavior. This suggests that many people in Japan view ijime as something that happens in elementary, junior high, and high school. Do you think that it is accurate to characterize ijime in this way?

I think most people don’t think too deeply about the wider implications of ijime in society and tend to generally think of it as a school thing. The katakana “hara” for harassment is being used to discuss wider issues like power harassment, verbal harassment, workplace harassment of various types. This goes in with my comments above about ijime pervading society and there being a certain tolerance for it, a sense that it is inevitably a part of society and it needs to be kept under control rather than trying, ideally, to eradicate it. There is also the feeling that surviving it is a sort of rite of passage on the road to maturity so to speak. This certainly seems to be the case in workplace bullying, ie the deshi or first year employee survives the tough training and submission to authority which, through the eyes of an outsider, can look very much like nasty bullying sometimes. There is an incredible tolerance for bullying and because there are certain norms for size, ability and behavior in place in society here, I think people have long accepted some kids will be bullies, others will have to put up with it; teachers will be bullied and be bullies. Corporal punishment is still tolerated in a lot of places as is the power and authority of the group versus the rights of the individual.

A lot of coverage has been recently given to Princess Aiko’s experiences of being bullied.  To me what seemed most amazing about that story is that it demonstrates the hesitancy of schools to take decisive action to discipline the bullies. If even a princess can find herself in this sorry situation, imagine the hurdles the average child and their parents face to get recognition and resolution of their ijime problems at school.

What kind of messages are young people receiving about ijime from Japanese television?

The biggest message I think is that society tolerates it and even can find it amusing at times.

Have there been any noteworthy attempts to deal with the problem of ijime in Japanese society either through talk shows, documentaries, or dramas? Which ones have been the most successful?

Yes, I can’t think of any good examples off the top of my head but occasionally there are. Generally what happens is that there is a really exceptionally horrid case where someone is killed or commits suicide over bullying and the news shows dig into the case with investigative reports and maybe a documentary. A sort of anti-bullying mood is aroused in society for a while but then the story dies down and the media pretty much forgets about it until the next case.  There is not a lot of media self analysis or willingness to accept their own zany variety programs or disrespect for people might in anyway contribute.  Most of the blame falls on the schools.

Has television played any part in the rise of bullycides (people taking their own lives as a result of bullying) in Japanese society?

Perhaps, I can’t think of any obvious examples right now. I think cell phones and the Internet are the biggest culprits nowadays.  TV is being eclipsed by them in so many ways. Rather cell phone messages that go out to all one’s classmates or so called “ura” Internet sites where bullies can operate without parents and teachers ever knowing, these are much bigger dangers now.  TV just offers an endless array of virtual bullying where one can sit at home and watch someone else bully and be bullied. Maybe some people get stress relief from it, who knows?

Do you see any relationship between the state of the economy and the amount of ijime on television? In other words, was there less ijime in the early 1990s and is there more today?

Actually, I think some of the worst ijime dramas on TV occurred during the mid 1980s when the economy was booming. Some of the high school dramas back then such as Furyo Shojo to Yobarete, School Wars, Pony Tail wa Furimukanai, for example, showed gangs of teenage girls beating up their victims quite brutally and group behavior was much stronger in those dramas.  Nowadays it’s more a matter of loners and TV actually seems to be showing a little more sympathy for the economically strapped and those who can’t make friends or don’t know how to relate in a lonely cell phone dominated world. But the variety show bullying is probably much worse now. It just seems to keep escalating each year as more and more old barriers and limits are broken down. It doesn’t seem to have much relation to the economy.

How has the rise of technology (keitais, digital cameras, websites, blogs, etc.) affected the level and the nature of ijime on Japanese television?

I think it has increased ijime and changed its nature in society in general but not particularly on TV; although of course TV is always educating us on the use and abuse of the new forms of technology now available.

Based on your long experience as a columnist writing about ijime on Japanese television, are things getting better or worse?

As I said above variety shows are getting wilder and worse but in general television has become a secondary medium. The Internet and cell phones are now the most important media and means of communication among the young.

Can ijime be stopped? If so, how?

As long as it is part of the fiber of society, I don’t think it can be stopped completely.  Eradicating it would require a lot of introspection and a desire to be a different society with different values. Changing the way people think about many things and making people take more responsibility for their individual and group actions might help.  But, obviously, this is not going to happen overnight, if it happens at all.  Maybe when today’s teens are parents, I don’t know? There has been some improvement but there is a very long way to go.

Interviewed by Charlie Canning. © 2010 Kathleen Morikawa.

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