Bullying in Japan: Expanding the Upstander Revolution

April 12 2016


My colleague, Erica Vogel, and I have recently returned from Yokohama, Japan. You may wonder what brought us to such a faraway place!

We were invited because the country has been experiencing a significant increase in bullying and cyberbullying in their schools, and unfortunately, an increase in bullying-related youth suicide. 

In 2014 at an International Bullying Conference, I was introduced to a Japanese organization called Learning Disabilities of Kanagawa (LDAK). LDAK was intrigued by Community Matters’ Whole School Climate approach. They had reviewed our Safe School Ambassadors® (SSA) program and wondered whether the embedded principles of bystander education -- waking up the courage of kids to say and do the right thing -- would transfer to their culture, and to their schools. After several exploratory meetings, the LDAK leaders determined that their next step was to come to the United States to observe and learn more about our program. First they observed the 2-day SSA training at Hillcrest Elementary in Southern California. Then they traveled to the Bay Area to meet with the administration at Joaquin Moraga, a junior high school that has had the SSA program in place since 2008.

Based on what they gleaned from their experiences, LDAK decided to invite us to Japan. After considerable arrangements and multiple Skype calls, Erica and I left for a week in Yokohama where we presented our Whole School Climate model and Safe School Ambassadors® program to educators in a 2-day conference. After the conference, we were invited to visit and observe classes at both a high school and a junior high. We then had the privilege of working directly with a hundred 5th grade students and staff to present the idea of bystander education as a means to prevent, de-escalate and stop bullying and mistreatment.  I was very surprised, and am excited to report, that the response was over the top; both students and staff were extremely positive about their ability to make a difference in changing their school’s culture using what they had learned from us.

We had wondered whether the language differences and the cultural barriers would make it too hard to translate a program like SSA. Based on our research of Japanese culture, our perception was that in Japan behavior is strongly driven by the need to belong, to seek harmony, to not stand apart from the group and to not “make waves”. Much of that is in contrast to the philosophy of the SSA program and Community Matters’ mission to wake up the courage of youth and adults to say or do the right things when they see intolerance and injustice taking place. Could those two philosophies reconcile themselves and work together? The answer was a resounding “yes”. What we discovered was that the universal principles of justice, peace, tolerance, and of wanting to live in a compassionate and safe world transcends language and cultural barriers. As a father, grandfather, educator and world citizen I find it encouraging to know that across the planet many of us are interested in working collaboratively to empower our young people to be the leaders we wish them to become. 

We’re very excited that we may have the opportunity to return to Japan within this next year to pilot the Safe School Ambassadors program in multiple schools. We’ll keep you posted on how things go and what happens. What’s most hopeful is that there’s a universal desire on our planet for a safe and just world, a compassionate world where people look out for each other. We can move closer to that if we invest sufficient time and resources to help our children find their voices, and give them the tools, skills, support and opportunity to be change agents, peacemakers and Upstanders, and then get out of their way to let them do what is inherently their capacity to do… to lead change in the world and create a safer world for all of us.

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