Image source: クリオネの灯り 公式アカウント on Twitter

In study after study of Japanese adolescents, the extent of bullying is always revealed. Yet what isn’t always apparent, especially to those outside of Japan, is what form that bullying takes in Japanese schools. Lights of The Clione reveals with great accuracy that bullying in Japan is as much or more about what peers don’t do than what bullies actually do.

[This article contains spoilers of the first two episodes of Lights of The Clione.]

A summary of Clione will point to the broader plot of how Minori, a sickly girl who is often out of school and who is bullied mercilessly, disappears. Her friends Kyoko and Takashi then receive a mysterious email about a nearby town’s festival. However, the first two episodes of the series focus exclusively on how Kyoko and Takashi view and, ultimately, silently enable their peers’ bullying of Minori. Aware of their complicity, the two speak only to each other of their guilt.

Image source: クリオネの灯り 公式アカウント on Twitter

Outside of certain urban school districts, my experiences with bullying in Japan have largely been non-physical. Occasionally, I have seen this, but not very often. Only once did I ever have to break up a fight. The smaller the school, the more insular the community, the less I have seen of physicality. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen in Japanese schools is precisely that which Minori is subjected to in Clione. Of course, Minori is teased and taunted, students speaking horribly about her, her known poverty, and the absence of her parents—but that’s not the worst of it.

The worst part of bullying in Japanese schools, in my view, is demonstrated by the students who act as though Minori is not even present—something I have seen happen in the real world myself. Intentionally “forgetting” to hand out something to a student being bulled, blatantly inviting everyone else to an event except the student being bullied, blocking the path of and talking through the student being bullied; these are all strategies to pointedly remind targets they are not part of the group.

Image source: クリオネの灯り 公式アカウント on Twitter

Group identity is very important in Japan, and I’ve touched on how clubs or classes, even if you are not friends with everyone, become a very important aspect of identity. I speak as much from study of my students as I do from my personal experiences assimilating in Japan. I derive great self worth from the groups in which I am a member and especially the recognition from others that I hold such membership. The message being sent to Minori (and real world students like her) is far more insidious than, “we don’t like you.” It’s “whether we like you or not, we’re denying that you even exist as part of this class/this club/this school/the community/Japan.”

I include the entirety of Japan as a group identity because much of the bullying I have seen in my time has been directed at students who are seen as “less than” when it comes to their Japaneseness. Obviously, I have seen many bullied students who have had one parent who is Japanese and one parent who is not. I have also seen bullied students with unusual phenotypical features, but whose parents are both Japanese. I have also had students who are Japanese by nationality (two students in particular who were bullied I remember, one was Filipino-Japanese, the other was Chinese-Japanese) neither of which had Yamato-Japanese parentage.

I can say, however, that in my decade teaching in Japanese schools, I have seen this particular reason for bullying drop in inverse proportion to the number of students (or even teachers) who have these identities as part of their Japaneseness. When I first arrived in Japan, perhaps, one student in the entire school. Now, it’s more like one per class. That’s a tenfold increase in a single decade (roughly 1 in 300 to 1 in 30). However, if there is a desire to exclude, then there will always be a way found to do so.

Image source: クリオネの灯り 公式アカウント on Twitter

Kyoko and Takashi are aware from the beginning of the first episode that they have played a significant part in Minori’s bullying. While they don’t actively participate, they never lift a hand or say a word to stop it. Nor have they ever spoken to Minori privately. There’s a huge social cost to doing anything to help Minori, especially publicly. Kyoko and Takashi realise that countermanding the prevailing consensus of their class—i.e., that excluding Minori is an aspect of the group identity that helps define that identity—would not only potentially cause individual blowback (as they might be bullied as well) but also disturb the status quo.

It’s quite possible that many readers may not understand why “disturbing the status quo” or challenging “consensus” is equally frightening (perhaps even more frightening) to Kyoko and Takashi as actively being bullied or excluded themselves. However, in Japanese society, consensus, settlement, and social harmony are extremely important. It can be difficult to point out issues, even when the issue needs to be addressed, because in doing so, you then cause a social issue yourself. Being too direct in trying to address a problem in need of reform can be seen as a situation of “two wrongs,” and as that saying ends, it won’t “make a right.”

Image source: クリオネの灯り 公式アカウント on Twitter

Kyoko and Takashi are between a “rock and a hard place.” They know their silence has been the same as publicly showing they agree with and are part of the consensus on bullying Minori. However, they also know that disturbing that consensus is a serious departure from accepted social norms, and likely comes with severe social consequences. This is a very difficult issue even for Japanese adults, and in my union work, and my own experiences as a worker in Japan, I have seen this same duality of conscience amongst the most mature of Japanese peers. Choosing to buck the consensus is act of courage, made even more courageous because of their youth.

Which is precisely why I was very proud of Kyoko and Takashi when they finally overcome the guilt slowly eating at them and approach Minori with kindness and compassion. We quickly find that the simple actions of showing interest in Minori, asking her questions, and treating her as though, yes, she does exist, is the nicest anyone has ever been to Minori. And just as they recognize the humanity in themselves by recognizing the humanity of Minori, she’s gone.

Lights of the Clione can be seen with subtitles on Anime Strike.

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