So here we were in Tokyo, almost 6 months later. I had thought we were well settled in. I had found a very nice Nigerian lady to do my hair, and Jeremy would play with her two kids while she worked her magic. I was even having a semblance of a social life, going out dancing once in a while with Vivi, my Italian friend and coworker. I was dating a nice Frenchman (😘 😘Chris, keep on being full of light) in his 30’s who would bring me salad and play living room soccer with Jeremy.
And then the teacher called me on September 20th, 2019.
She asked me if Jeremy had changed his behaviour at home, and I said no. Everything was normal at home. He would come home tired after a long day at school and gakudo, the after school club. I would make him dinner, then check his homework, give him a shower (sometimes he showered by himself), then he would watch one or two episodes of Pokemon on Amazon Prime, which he was obsessed with. Then he would go to bed at around 8 or 8:30.
I am paraphrasing, as the conversation took place in Japanese.
“Well, in school, he has been getting really angry in class.”
What do you mean, I asked?
“Well, he gets angry and then he acts out by throwing his erasers, pens, pencil case at the wall. ”
While I was still processing this, she continued.
“He does this 4 or 5 times a day. When he does this, what I do is send him to the Hokenshitsu (like the nurse’s room for band-aids and minor cuts, etc) to calm down. When he comes back however, he soon gets angry again.”
I was so shocked. At home, he’s a nice and gentle kid. At the park, he loves playing with younger kids, he’s always getting the “oniichan rashii ne” compliments from Japanese parents saying how good of a big brother he is. Mark you, these are strangers we meet at the park, and Jeremy has no fear walking up to them, saying hello and asking the kids to play. So what the teacher was saying was largely out of character and more like what Jeremy would do when he was going through the terrible 2’s phase (because well, he couldn’t communicate).
She was still talking.
“Yes, he has done this on a daily basis since the second semester started. I have tried talking to him. Of course he understands Japanese perfectly, so language is not a problem. I have told him it is okay to get angry, it is normal, but he needs to learn to control his feelings of anger. It is like he tries, but cannot control his emotions. Perhaps he should talk to a behavioural therapist (my understanding) to help him with anger management.”
I was now dabbing at the tears threatening to fall from my eyes. Vivi asked me what’s wrong. I motioned that I would tell her later.
Why would a 6 year old be so angry? What could make a kid so angry that he would be unable to control his emotions, until he throws whatever is within reach against the wall?
“In fact today, during clean up, he wouldn’t cooperate and he took off his indoor shoes and threw them against the wall.”
“I have explained to him that this is dangerous and could hurt other kids. I can see he understands but he cannot control himself. Once he’s calmed down he’s very lively but his anger flares up so quickly. This started in this semester, last semester everything was ok. When do you have time, can come to school to discuss it.”
I asked about the bullying.
“No, there is no bullying. We talked to the whole school and told the students to not bully him, but to help him.” 手伝ってあげて、マナー教えたり (To help him with the rules and manners). I thought it was ominous that they’d put the spotlight on him as the only black kid in the entire school, which would surely make matters worse, no?
After we settled for a Thursday the following week, I hang up and turned to Vivi, tears streaming down my face. School is supposed to be fun (in my opinion), but it seemed my son was having a hellish time. What could make a 6 year old be so angry? The teacher hadn’t explained to me the reason. Anger therapy for a 6 year old?
“Harriet, save your son” Vivi said.
When I got home, Jeremy was his usual self but on closer observation, I realized that he’d actually been less talkative lately. He had also stopped doing his homework at the gakudo, which I thought was because he got too tired after playing the whole day. I would help him do it, but wouldn’t force it if he was too tired. Imagine you’ve been up since 6 and are doing homework at 7 or 8pm in the night. I was lax in enforcing homework, believing that in the first grade, kids should have fun and the intense work can begin in the later years of primary/elementary school.
In a gentle voice, I asked him if everything was ok in school.
He averted his face and looked down, shamefaced.
I told him sensei had told me what was happening in school. Why was he getting angry, I asked.
But Jeremy was silent.
Later, you will see why it would be something difficult for a 6 year old to explain. He just said,
“Roy is still bullying me.”
It wasn’t a lie, but it was not the complete picture.
The following day, glum-faced as he was, I asked him if he wanted to go to school and he said he hated going to school (in the first grade!). I told him he would have to go that day but I was going to visit the school that Thursday to sort out everything. I told him everything would be alright.
I posted what was happening in the support group of “Parents with kids in Japanese schools”. The feedback I got was chilling. Many parents shared their experiences and gave me advice. They sent me private messages of support and offered to help wherever they could. Basically, I needed to get to the root cause of the acting-out, but it was highly likely to be bullying.
As the only black child in a Japanese school, he stood out. And standing out is a bad thing in a conformist society like Japan. Below is an excerpt from this article that sums up why bullying is so vicious in Japanese schools:
“Bullying is common in many countries as not all children have been civilized at a young age, but I feel it is different here in Japan,” she said. “In schools here, a pupil who is different from the others will be a target. That is the same throughout Japanese society. Conformity is important.
“So if you are talented in class, or if you are a girl who is too pretty, or if you play a musical instrument well or if you just act differently, you are a target.”
I had literally put my lamb in the lion’s den.
In my defense, the last 4 years in Ishikawa in the Japanese nursery school went great. My son spoke the language with a local accent! Was I too optimistic? I also thought that bullying would start in the later years (and planned to leave by then), not from the 1st grade! The crazy thing is, my work environment is great. Awesome even. Great team, great working conditions. But my child was living the dark side of Japan, while I basked in the brilliant light (of tatemae) at work.
After reading the responses in the facebook group, it became extremely difficult to send Jeremy to school in the morning. I was supposed to meet the teacher that Thursday afternoon at around 4pm, but I decided to take the whole day off.
As usual, he didn’t want to go to school. I called the school to let them we would be absent, and the principal picked up the phone.
“Why aren’t you coming to school? Fever, flu?”
I said it’s because Jeremy was being bullied. He asked nothing more! He said he would pass the message to the homeroom teacher and hang up.
By 9am that morning, Jeremy was restless. I decided I might as well go to the school and observe what was happening. I asked Jeremy if we could go together and he said if you stay with me, I will go. The teacher had said she would schedule a particular day for me to observe the class, but I figured out that since I had taken a day off anyway, I might as well show up. I am glad no one was prepared for our arrival, for on that day, I learned exactly what was happening and how much worse the situation really was.
At the school entrance, we took off our outdoor shoes, Jeremy changed into his indoor shoes and we went into the class. The teacher was shocked to see us but asked Jeremy to take out his books and prepare for class. I explained to the teacher that I was free that day and would she let me observe the class. She said no, she had not prepared to host me and I would disrupt the learning as other kids in class would wonder why I was there. She emphatically said to go and come back at 4pm that day and we would talk and arrange a day for me to observe the class. She then went back to teaching as Jeremy settled down, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave just like that so I remained standing at the door. I just wanted to find out what was causing this behaviour.
She came back to the door and assured me she would watch Jeremy closely the whole day and that I really should go. She said, okay, let’s call him and make a promise that today he will behave.
Jeremy came to the door, she bent down and into his face, said this. It wasn’t what she said, rather the tone with which she said it.
“JEREMY, IT IS OKAY TO GET ANGRY. BUT YOU CANNOT THROW THINGS AT THE WALLS. YOU WILL HURT OTHER KIDS. IF OTHER KIDS GET HURT, YOU MOTHER COULD BE IN SO MUCH TROUBLE. YOU ARE CAUSING TROUBLE TO EVERYONE. DON’T THROW THINGS. LET’S MAKE A PROMISE WITH YOUR MOTHER RIGHT HERE. YOU DON’T WANT TO CAUSE HER TROUBLE, DO YOU? EVERYONE HATES THAT.”
It was basically a tirade, and the crazy thing is, I was right there! That was when I realized that when Japanese people deal with kids, they don’t bother with tatemae. (Too long, can’t go into it right now).
If this woman spoke to my child like this in my presence, what about when I wasn’t around? Did she think I was going to side with her and agree that he is causing me so much trouble? I was more interested in finding out why he was getting angry in the first place, which she wouldn’t address. It is not okay for little boys to be so angry.
I felt so sad for poor Jeremy.
I finally understood why he never said anything and why he had stopped talking about the bullying.
He didn’t want to cause me any trouble.
In Japan, the avoidance of “causing trouble” is a philosophy of life. An AKB 48 idol was assaulted, and she apologized to the public for “causing trouble”. Train announcements ask you to not speak on the phone, because you will “cause trouble” for others. Everywhere you go, the message is “do not cause trouble.” My son was of course internalizing this philosophy.
I asked him if he wanted to go home instead.
He said, “我慢する”. I will endure.
Another aspect of Japanese culture is endurance. Stoicism, if you will.
Jeremy went back to his seat. The teacher resumed teaching. I left the school in tears.
I hadn’t gone far when I got the phone call to go back to the school. Jeremy had had an episode. He was in the Hokenshitsu.
I dried my tears and went to the Hokenshitsu. Jeremy sat forlorn, in a corner, while the nurse looked at him like she was a fly in her tea.
She looked at me with the same expression as he came in. She told him,
“Tell your mother what you’ve done!” in the same tone as the teacher.
In a small voice, Jeremy said that some kid came and shouted in his ear, surprising him and making him jump. He also said that when he had stood to go to the toilet, several of his classmates had shouted at him, “Ocharo-kun, sit down!”
The kid who did the shouting wasn’t punished, but Jeremy was. I hugged him and told him I’d stay with him that day.
We went back to the class and the teacher said that that was fast. Usually, he would take a longer time to calm down.
Of course he would! The Hokenshitsu is not the place to send a child who’s angry. The woman there was so mean to him, in front of me. How did they treat him when I wasn’t around?
No wonder he felt isolated with no one to turn to. Not in school, and not at home because he didn’t want to cause me trouble.
I stayed during the math lesson. I noticed they were handing in their homework sheets, which Jeremy hadn’t done. He was doing it while I was there. That was when I noticed all the other kids had turned to Jeremy, and were watching do his homework, shouting answers at him even before he could write it down. Of course they’d done the homework so they knew the answers, but they weren’t giving him a chance to work it out.
I finally understood what was happening.
The reason he got so angry in class was because of the constant correction by everyone, in addition to the specific case of bullying by Roy. The other kids seem to have studied ahead (sometimes attending kumon/after school drills – something I found out by talking to lots of people) and are ready with answers the next day. I hadn’t been enforcing homework either, but I had no idea the extent of the effect this was having on him. So these kids had all singled out my son as the target of correction, and once he started working out his answers, they were ready to correct him. They blurted out answers while he was working it out, and that made him lose it and his confidence in the process. They would, in a chorus, tell him to sit down if he stood up in class, even if he was going to the toilet.
Worse, when he came back from the Hokenshitsu after 20-30 minutes, he’d missed a huge part of the lesson and so the other kids were ready to correct him as he tried to catch up, making him angry and creating a vicious cycle.
On top of the cultural collective bullying to “fit in” with the behaviour of the rest of the group, he was still being bullied by Roy who kicked or punched or said mean things to him (I reiterate that my son is very sensitive and kind). The bully kept apologizing but still repeated his actions from time to time. He was apparently attending a “training” to improve his behavior.
In his 自由ノート free-writing notebook, Jeremy has filled it with kid-drawings of Pocket monsters. I guess he was immersing himself in Pokemon as a way a means of coping (see the IG pic at the beginning of the post).
However, one drawing stands out:
I asked him to explain it to me.
It depicts a scene at the playground.
He says they were skipping rope in the playground when Roy came and kicked him, making him cry, as you can see in the drawing the large tears coursing down Jeremy’s face.
The teacher then made Roy apologize, and Jeremy said “ii yo”. You’re forgiven.
To be continued in part 3.