What’s holding back Japan? The bullies.

The Olympics composer scandal provides the world with a tiny glimpse of the biggest problem facing the Japanese economy.

Prior to the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, one of the big news stories was the resignation of the event’s musical composer. As reported by Japanese national broadcaster NHK, the story went like this:

[Keigo] Oyamada resigned as a composer for the ceremony on Monday, saying that his decision to accept the job was inconsiderate.

At the center of the controversy are decades-old magazine interviews in which he spoke of abusing his classmates and others, including students with disabilities.

I’ve recently spent quite a bit of time in Japan; not as a tourist or “fan of Japanese culture,” but as someone simply living a day-to-day life. Based on this experience, and from the stories quietly told to me by Japanese men and women — especially women — I immediately assumed that using the word “abuse” to describe what Keigo Oyamada did was probably downplaying some dark, sadistic behavior.

My suspicions were compounded by the fact that Japanese elite were defending Oyamada’s behavior, with the Olympics organizing committee saying, “in light of his sincere apology … we expressed a willingness to allow [him] to continue his work,” and NHK describing the situation as a mere “controversy” involving “decades-old” information. It looked like a classic situation in which a pack of bullies engage in tactics meant to defend one of their own — something I’d seen before in my own life.

I felt as though I might be projecting and over-reacting, so I decided to do a bit of digging to see what Oyamada had actually done in terms of “abusing his classmates.” A post on ARAMA! Japan provided a clear answer:

In a number of magazine interviews in the 90s, Cornelius looked back on his bullying of a mentally disabled classmate, from elementary school through high school. His torment of his peer included tying him up, trapping him in a box, duct taping a cardboard box around his head and then pouring chalk dust inside, making him eat his own feces, forcing him to walk around school with his penis exposed, and forcing him to masturbate in front of other students, among other things. These reflections were not looked back on regretfully, but instead were seen as funny childhood moments. He spoke of them in a boastful nature.

Yeah, that’s what I thought — what this guy and his friends characterize as “abuse,” every normal, sane person would call torture. As everyone who’s dealt with a bully or a predator knows, half the “fun” for them is in getting away with it. Oyamada didn’t leave me disappointed there. On July 20th, Japan Times reported:

Oyamada admitted on Friday that interviews published in the January 1994 edition of magazine Rockin’On Japan and in the August 1995 edition of magazine Quick Japan had quoted him correctly when he spoke about bullying childhood classmates with disabilities “without any regrets.” … In his tweet last week, Oyamada said, “I sincerely feel that such acts and language must be criticized” and that he feels “deep regret and responsibility” for what he describes as his “extremely immature” actions.

These are the words of an unrepentant sadist: “regret” for behavior he considers “immature.” He remains the same disgusting person he has been his entire life; and really, why should he change? His friends — fellow bullies — definitely knew of exactly what he did, and their reaction was to give him one of the most prestigious jobs in the country. Let that sink in for a minute, so you understand the sort of people we’re talking about here. As we’d say in software engineering: “that’s a feature, not a bug.”

Perhaps subconsciously, foreigners have a habit of looking at Japanese society through a fetishist’s lens. If these people were to stop looking at Japanese people as cartoon characters and start to view them as normal humans with normal emotions, they would realize that a lot of the things they find “quirky” about Japan are either emblematic or symptomatic of the bullying problem facing the country. Foreigners might also realize that a lot of the people and things they celebrate and adore are major contributors to the bullying problem.

A great example is hikikomori: “a condition in which the affected individuals refuse to leave their parents’ house.” So many write about hikikimori as some sort of crazy, inexplicable phenomena, but scroll back and look at what distinguished sadist Oyamada did to his victim; it’s not hard to imagine why victims of childhood torture would spend the rest of their lives feeling a lot safer at home, than around others. And if there’s something anyone who’s dealt with child abuse can tell you, it’s that very, very few victims will ever speak up about what they went through and how it affected their lives.

I have witnessed, first-hand, what the Japanese bullying culture looks like when it leaves school, gets older, and takes up a job in the corporate world. It seems that quite a few senior executives at large firms in Japan — both local conglomerates and foreign multinationals — spend their entire days engaged in microaggressions meant to humiliate others and project power. While some might say this is just part of a very successful “Japanese corporate culture,” it really isn’t. These 50- and 60-something manager-bureaucrats didn’t build Japan; they spent their entire youths living as the spoiled, privileged children of the country’s Bubble Era. Whenever I confront these executives’ subordinates about their behavior, the lower-ranking employees often admit that they, too, are subjected to the same behavior that I faced — not in one-off meetings, but on a constant, ongoing basis.

The “puzzle” of Japan Inc.’s fall from dominance in innovation is thus easy to understand. Organizations that should be obsessively focused on innovation and the empowerment of their workers — companies whose legacy businesses throw off more than enough cash to turn their workforces into the most highly-compensated in the world — are instead caught up in an intricate, office-friendly version of the behavior about which Keigo Oyamada so proudly bragged. It’s no surprise, then, that Japanese scientists would rather go work in China.

Everything I’ve written so far has a very gender-neutral / male bias to it; that’s because the mass-scale bullying faced by Japanese girls and women is completely next level and needs to be discussed on its own. Speaking at the Cannes Film Festival, Japanese animator Mamoru Hosoda said it best:

“You only have to watch Japanese animation to see how young women are underestimated and not taken seriously in Japanese society,” he says.

“It really annoys me to see how young women are often seen in Japanese animation — treated as sacred — which has nothing to do with the reality of who they are” … “I will not name him, but there is a great master of animation who always takes a young woman as his heroine. And to be frank I think he does it because he does not have confidence in himself as a man.”

I always tell foreigners who tell me about their “obsession with Japanese culture,” as evidenced by their love of manga and anime, that they really do not understand what they’re buying into. Behind all of that content — behind all of those hyper-sexualized depictions of young girls in extremely questionable scenarios — are weird men who are financing and creating this content, and indoctrinating people with it. It is not “Japanese culture” — it is a very specific group of people, with a very specific and disturbing agenda, being given the power to act out on it. And, to use Hosoda’s words regarding Hayao Miyazaki, it seems that a lot of these men do it because they do not have confidence in themselves as men.

Hosoda’s indictment of Miyazaki is actually more than just an explanation of one man’s weird cartoons — it is a perfect way to explain why so many people humiliate, bully, and harass Japanese women, and feel totally okay about it. After facing bullying in their own lives, and being made to feel a lack of confidence in themselves, these people see women — especially young girls, who are taught to be polite and respectful — as easy targets through which they can let out their own aggression. Foreigners’ fascination with media that is a byproduct of this bullying only serves to make matters worse, and gives victims a feeling of “that’s just how it is” helplessness, much as how a Black person might have felt while watching Gone with the Wind in a movie theatre.

Again, we can look at problems that seem like a “quirky” part of “Japanese culture,” such as the low birth rate, and realize that these are representative of the bullying problem. Women are bullied for being “selfish” by not having kids, but they’re also bullied for being “bad mothers” when they do; whether it’s men or women, everyone thinks it’s their right to tell a young woman what she’s doing “wrong.” And this is after a childhood in which countless comic books and cartoons depicted them in their school uniforms in a hyper-sexualized submissive manner, leaving them justifiably afraid of male interaction (especially interactions involving foreign men who just hopped off a discount airline flight, whose only knowledge of “Japanese girls” involves… stuff they saw on the Internet). If anything, I’m surprised anyone has kids under these conditions.

One of my friends in Japan told me, “once you realize what Japanese women have to go through in their lives, you realize they’re some of the strongest and bravest people in the world.” I agree completely.

Now, having said all of this, I’m not pessimistic about the ability for Japan to solve the bullying problem. Just below the surface of Japanese society is an incredible amount of anger and frustration about these issues, among both men and women. People are tired of these cycles of bullying and abuse; it’s a lot of pain with no reward whatsoever. The Internet has, of course, been a massive help; for example, compare NHK’s portrayal of Oyamada’s behavior with the ugly truth printed by ARAMA! Japan.

The biggest problem for the bullies and their friends is that they’re proving to be comically incompetent at doing their jobs. In a society which takes ultimate pride in the quality of its work — a real Japanese cultural trait, part of why it’s such an amazing place, and why Japanese people are truly exceptional — to be incompetent and bad at your job is practically punishable by death. The innovations and growth needed to keep Japan globally competitive for the next 100 years requires the participation of those being oppressed and targeted by the country’s bullies; and thus, the victims must win over their oppressors.

To accelerate this process, it’s important for foreigners to understand the stranglehold that bullies have over so many areas of Japanese society. Rather than accepting the stories given to them at face value and write off questionable things as “part of Japanese culture,” it’s important for foreign people to subject those seeking their approval with the same scrutiny faced by those at home. To give an analogy familiar to any social worker: people who abuse their children often seem like amazing parents — and they often are, until nobody’s looking.

Foreigners need to make sure they’re not contributing to toxic corporate cultures, that they aren’t assisting in the spread of media meant to indoctrinate young men in toxic attitudes toward young girls, and that they aren’t helping to celebrate “icons” whose rise to prominence was facilitated by a culture that promotes and empowers like-minded bullies. There is a lot more to Japan than these people and the institutions they inhabit; you will find worthy replacements for those that should be shunned.

Regardless of whether it’s a bank, a trading company, a tech startup, an art gallery, a restaurant, whatever — there are amazing men and women in Japan quietly doing all sorts of things exceptionally well. One example is my favorite food and kitchenware company in Tokyo, run by a staff of 10 men and 60 women, all exceptionally talented, owned and managed by a husband and wife who are obsessed with their workers’ well-being. Another example is a Japanese mega-bank that has begun the necessary but painful move of cutting all of its coal investments as part of a quiet realization that it needed to be better than its peers among the “elite.”

Foreign pressure turned the ugly truth about Keigo Oyamada into a domestic scandal that couldn’t be ignored. I hope this is a part of a broader trend. The only people with something to lose are the bullies; as the story of Keigo Oyamada shows, they deserve to lose everything.