Why Bullying Is So Common in Japan

By Dyske    April 18th, 2010

Christopher Carr over at The Inductive reports about Japanese corporate hazing, which is basically a form of bullying. It’s quite common in Japan, and what makes it so problematic is that adult bullying is often sanctioned by the organizations within which it takes place. Because it is so culturally normalized that they cannot see that it’s actually bullying.

Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru"

My theory on why this happens in Japan is that it comes from the common misunderstanding of the methods used in achieving enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. Just as the teaching of Christ is misinterpreted by White Supremacists, many Japanese see the rituals and the customs of Zen Buddhism, and mindlessly imitate them without understanding what motivates those rituals and customs. A Zen master often treats his disciples in a manner that comes across as abusive, so the popular culture of Japan interprets this as a sign that abuse leads to enlightenment. This in turn encourages people in power to behave as though they are Zen masters. They abuse those who are below them while rationalizing in their heads that they are doing something noble or even altruistic.

Carl Jung describes this phenomenon eloquently in his book “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.” He tells a story of a sorcerer and his disciples. One day, the sorcerer attained enlightenment. His disciples asked him how he did it, but the sorcerer made no reply. They discovered peculiar diagrams in the cave where the sorcerer attained enlightenment. They said to themselves, “That’s it!” and began copying the diagrams. The point of this story is that by repeating the diagrams, they have reversed the entire process. The diagrams to the sorcerer were effects, not the cause of his enlightenment.

What is particularly insidious about bullying in Japan is that it even manifests in a father-to-son relationship. “Gaman”, which means somewhere between “discipline” and “patience”, is lauded as the most important quality a man should have, and is pounded into children’s heads. What is entirely lacking in this lesson is the purpose: For what should they develop this quality?

Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” provides a great example of how this manifests in Japanese organizations. The main character of the film, Watanabe, is a middle-aged salary-man who worked all his life in a government office just passing time, thinking that he is being virtuous because he is sacrificing himself for his kids. Meanwhile, his kids don’t even appreciate what he does for them. What Watanabe does not realize, until he learns that he has terminal stomach cancer, is that using someone else other than himself as his reason to live is in fact an excuse not to face the meaning of life for himself. By using his kids as a justification for his own existence, he can avoid asking himself why he should be living. Facing the reality of death, he realizes that, if he were to live, he needs to have his own reason. He needs to know or feel inside why he wants to live.

This realization is utterly lacking in the vast majority of Japanese who abuse their underlings and children. They use their positions of power to make themselves feel superior, and to give themselves justifications for why they are living. Because they are only copying the ritualistic facade of Zen Buddhism, their abuse causes nothing but misery for both the abusers and the abused.

When you know why you want to live, when the reason for living is self-evident, you live a life full of passion. You do not feel that you “have to” live (for someone else), but you want to. Everything you do is driven by what you want to do, which includes having and raising children. In such a state of mind, there is no “sacrifice” whatsoever. You would never use your own children as an excuse for you to live.

When your life is full of passion, “discipline” or “patience” comes naturally. There is no need for you to be trained for it. The strength of your passion will allow you to tolerate most anything. If you cannot, then what you should question is not your capacity for discipline and patience, but the strength of your passion. This is precisely what Zen masters are testing when they treat their disciples in a manner that appears abusive to outsiders. They are not training them to be patient; they want to know how strong their passion is to achieve enlightenment. Where there is no passion, there is no point in being patient whatsoever.

I myself suffered the effects of this common misunderstanding of Zen Buddhism while growing up in Japan. Ultimately it was the main reason why I decided to leave Japan. When properly understood, Zen and the Japanese culture are beautiful, but the misunderstanding of their own culture is rampant in Japan. But I now see that people are the same everywhere. The misunderstanding of Christianity is rampant in the West too. So, now I accept it as human nature, and that’s why, I believe, Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” has such a universal appeal.

12 Responses

  1. davidattokyo says:

    Just how Japan bullies the rest of the world to do as it wishes…


  2. Thiago Biquiba says:

    Bro, great XD Finally I found someone that can notice, that behind the differences, people act in a similar way everywhere. You have a great perception of how we can misunderstand many things, and to apply these things in a wrong way.

    Off Topic Observation: I finally read what is just below your topics “posted by Dyske » Follow me on Twitter or on Facebook Page”. Ohhh I were wishing to follow you since a long time ago. But I did not want to invade your privacy. I were shy for to do any ask like this, afraid of being misunderstood.

  3. bolei_cha says:

    that ‘really’ spoke to me. Thanks for the insight.

  4. Arlinda says:

    Thank you for the insightful article. I left Eastern Europe for the same reason, the have suffocating bullyish behaviour of people towards each other. You are right, they don’t notice they are doing it because by now it has become the norm. Some people think it is even cool to act that way
    . And I have to agree with you that the Orthodox Church is still being used for racial profiling and inflicting violence and hatred in the Balkans or towards any non white.
    Here is a link on world values:
    In my opinion, look at the picture, while the bottom countries don’t have well organized and secular societies, the higher ones tend to be too pushy.
    The ones int he left, including eastern Europeans, are poorer and worship survival values along with their secularity. Can you imagine the hell? At least Japan is more of “self-expressive” country.

  5. Dyske says:

    Thank you, Arlinda for sharing that map of values. That’s very interesting. I knew Japan is a secular country, but I didn’t realize how secular it is.

  6. Observ says:

    Many cultures and people from all countries act like that, not just the Japanese.
    Everyone does NOT examine why they act like… jerks… but because.. “that’s how the world is”.

    NO… People choose to be … pricks but YOU can choose NOT to be a prick!

    Unfortunately, people to tend to generally act superior to others and put people down for their own Damn egos and arrogance.

    IF there’s a heaven or god or both, let Justice prevail in life or death and let those Pricks be judged accordingly!

  7. Sal Paradise says:

    Have you ever read an article that takes the mess of things you were thinking, wraps it up, and explains it more perfectly than you thought possible? This is one of those articles for me.

    I recently quit my job at a traditional Japanese manufacturer I’d been with for several years. The problems you are talking about (control for the sake of control, bullying for the sake of bullying) were endemic. People justified their position/their life based on the position they held, rather than what they were accomplishing/who they were accomplishing it for.

    When I decided to quit, the president of the company wanted to know why. He couldn’t understand. I had passion, I had ability, I saw what needed to be fixed, but I wouldn’t just ‘gaman’ while things got fixed over the next decade.

    I wanted to say what this article did — that my ability to ‘gaman’ is a function of my passion, and I was having trouble keeping my passion for a company that couldn’t see these problems as problems. ‘Gaman’ is something that should come from inside — the desire to endure for your family, or for your customers — not something that should be imposed externally.

    Elegantly said (time to watch Ikiru).

  8. karlo says:

    there is a higher percentage of bullying on student, third sex, child or sibling of a criminal, and child from a broken family.. if the religion is the main reason, why is that most of the one bullying and the one being bullied are mostly children or teens?

  9. Jennifer says:

    I want to thank you for such a heart-felt article. It is extremely unfortunate that bullying is such an issue in Japan among the adults and how children are treated. However, I would like to discuss your comments on Christianity. It saddens me that your experiences with Christians has left you to believe that Christianity is based on the same misfortunes you find in Buddhism. I must admit I know very little about Buddhism, but I do know a great deal about Christ. Please find it in your heart to understand that you should not base the who Christ was and what He did for all of us on the actions of other so-called Christians. God (Christ) has taken all of the biblical laws and broke them down in to 2. 1. Love the Lord your God and 2. Love others.

    Christ did not specify who to love. He said to love ALL people. Regardless of their beliefs, culture, sins, etc. Christ went so far as to say “Love your enemies – anyone can love those who love you, but a true Christian loves the unlovable” If you have experiences bullying from any Christian it is because they do not follow the teachings of Christ as they should. Furthermore, Christ calls us to hold parenting as a top priority. Children are blessed and we are to raise them in a loving, nurturing home with discipline that involves patience and care. Beating children is verbally, emotionally and physically is strictly prohibited in the bible.

    I would love to hear that you would take the time to open God’s Word and enlighten yourself on the beauty of the scriptures. Start in the New Testament to gain the knowledge and discernment necessary to truly appreciate what Christ did for you.

    With God’s Love,
    Jennifer D.

  10. WestSeaDoc says:

    Another take on bullying in Japan without so much religious philosophy (which admittedly has some integral effect is such a society) but more interpreting of the dynamics.


  11. TheJapanRants says:

    It was interesting to see your perspective on the bullying issue. (which was my main reason for linking to your post in my piece on bullying http://www.thejapanrants.com/blog/bullying-ijime-in-japan/)

    I think that considering the fact that you grew up in Japan, it gives a unique view and your approach is handled in a similar manner.

    You touched on a lot of personal and self-reflecting points in this article, and it really gives something to think about.
    Good piece and thanks for putting it together.

  12. saroj bista says:

    I need to thank you for such a heart-felt article than. That is extremely unfortunate that bullying is such an issue in the Japan among the adults and how children been are treated. However, I would like to discuss your comments on be Christianity. It saddens me that your experiences with Christians has left you to believe that Christianity is based on the same misfortunes you find in Buddhism. I must admit I know very little about Buddhism, but I do know a great deal about Christ. Please find it in your heart and understand that you should not base the who Christ was and what He did for all of us on the actions of other so-called Christians.