For those geeks out there who like manga, there was some disturbing reading material last weekend. On Friday, May 6, Human Rights Watch released a report on the state of bullying in Japan that described the abuse suffered by LGBT students as nothing short of an “epidemic.” The 84-page report, titled “’The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down’: LGBT Bullying and Exclusion in Japanese Schools,” includes four manga adaptations of actual interviews conducted as part of research among college and high school students. They illustrate shocking stories of harassment and teacher abuse and neglect.
Dozens of students and young adults were interviewed by Human Rights Watch in fourteen prefectures, and an online survey of 458 Japanese LGBT students was conducted. The online survey found that 86% had “heard homophobic slurs from peers or teachers.” According to Professor Yasuharu Hidaka from the School of Nursing at Takarazuka University, one third of teachers in Japan “still [believe] that homosexuality is a mental illness or ‘don’t really know if it is.’”
The report lays the onus of blame on the Japanese government for fostering an atmosphere of conformity and repression over one of acceptance and inclusiveness. This is reflected in the individual tales of students who are told they are being “selfish” for wanting to live openly. School is even more of a nightmare for transgender students, who must be diagnosed with a mental disorder before receiving recognition of their gender. One of the manga in the report details one non-conforming student’s nausea from wearing a girl’s uniform and not being allowed to use the proper bathroom; an environment that regulates everything from wardrobe to hair length is oppressively restrictive.
In 2013, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology issued the Bullying Prevention Act, or Basic Policy on the Prevention of Bullying, which is up for review this year. It prizes “harmony” and following rules instead of any proactive stance actions that could be taken to stop bullying when it occurs. Teacher training and “cultural norms” are emphasized. It makes no mention of LGBT students at all.
Critics say that singling out LGBT students would turn them into a protected class (and where have we heard that before?), but not doing so is ignoring the very real pain that is being inflicted on LGBT youth every day. In fact, the focus of the policy as it stands empowers the bullies to feel justified in enforcing said “norms” and act as if any “deviation” is the real problem. The title of the report comes from a common Japanese expression that describes just this type of violence.
Fortunately, there does seem to be improvement in the way LGBT people are seen in Japan. Last year, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward moved to recognize same-sex couples, and Human Rights Watch has noted that the current worldwide expansion of LGBT rights is having a positive effect. Recently, Japan’s Education Ministry released the “Guidebook for Teachers Regarding Careful Response to Students related to Gender Identity Disorder as well as Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” However, it is nonbinding, and doesn’t go nearly far enough in addressing the concerns raised by the HRW report. More needs to be done.
School is a popular setting for comics, and manga in particular. Unfortunately, the stories in the manga reproduced here are all too real. They don’t involve fantastical tropes, magical notebooks, or simple tennis matches, but an appalling reality for young LGBT people. The chance to learn--to better oneself, to guarantee a brighter future--should not include the possibility of being attacked or ignored.
Images courtesy of Human Rights Watch, copyright 2016 Taiji Utagawa