Japan's Developmental Disability Support Act obligates national, prefectural, and municipal governments to provide individuals with developmental disabilities the resources and support systems they need to complete their education. After the law was passed in 2004, government agencies implemented measures for creating school committees, training staff and educators, and providing families consultation. But short of actual reform, these measures merely appended an ecosystem that goes out of its way to punish children, like Shishunki's Hikaru, who do not fit the role prescribed to them by the adult world.
Shishunki (2020) provides a glimpse into Japan before the Act, when there was little public awareness of developmental disorders and their impact on education. But its all-too-familiar scenes of bullying and social isolation may resonate with children in Japan today as well as audiences overseas, suggesting that as an international community, we still have a long way to go before our schools become the safe and inclusive learning spaces they should be.
The short film follows Hikaru, an elementary school student with mandibular prognathism who struggles to fit in with his classmates. After some teasing during lunch escalates into a fistfight with two other boys, Hikaru becomes involved in a series of altercations as the target of vicious bullying. But as these fights become a regular occurrence, his classmates eventually ignore him and his bullies.
To be upfront, Shishunki does not treat us to any saccharine heart-to-heart between Hikaru and the other boys that ends in empathy and understanding. But as it depicts the extent of children's cruelty towards one another, it also highlights the failings of every adult involved. From Hikaru's parents and teachers onscreen, to his peers' guardians and school administrators implied offscreen, the adults of Shishunki are complicit in creating an environment where children like Hikaru are ostracized and must fend for themselves. Throughout the film, they not only reinforce his insecurity and difficulty socializing as flaws to be corrected, but they also do little to help him navigate this hostile climate, and blame him for how he adjusts when other children bully him.
This systemic failure to support students with developmental disabilities, rather than punishing them, is certainly not unique to Japanese schools. In the United States, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that during the 2013-2014 school year, students with disabilities were more likely to face suspension from school regardless of the type of school or its rate of poverty. The same report shows a similar trend among Black students, corroborating earlier findings that Black children are punished more often and more severely than their peers. We see that the frequency at which children face punishment at school reflects society's prejudices.
Of course, we don't need numbers to show what many of us have lived, witnessed, or in some cases perpetuated ourselves growing up. But while we might prefer that such experiences stay locked away in the dark corners of our memory, the children drag them to the surface, as if to say that we were once them. As for me, I recall being teased for my reclusiveness, as well as watching other kids pile on a boy just like me. I recall cracking jokes at the expense of a girl I didn't even know, and, fewer times than I would have liked, standing up for a friend who faced similar abuse. In other words, I could see myself in every one of the children of Shishunki.
We might wonder, then, are we also becoming the adults? The same adults who have provided Hikaru and ourselves such little support throughout childhood? The short answer, if we are to go by the statistics above, is yes, "we" continue to enable a structure that punishes children who are not "like us." As one former school superintendent explains to the NYT, “When people have kids around them that don’t look like them, they want them controlled."
But while we must acknowledge the role that parents and teachers have on how children grow and experience the world, it would be irresponsible to consider them solely accountable, especially as they suffer a similar lack of support from society at large. We have witnessed these shortcomings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as parents and teachers alike have been forced to improvise strategies to prevent the spread of the disease between their children by themselves. And as we learn more about Hikaru's parents near the end of the film, we can't help but wonder how parents and teachers can become the resource for children they want to be when they also have nowhere to turn.
Such a quandary begs input from school administrators, policymakers, counselors, and social workers – and thus Shishunki creates a space for experts, researchers, and aspiring professionals alike to consider structural solutions to our education system in Japan, the United States, and beyond. While I encourage anyone with an interest in education inequality to watch the film, I'm especially interested in the conversations that would arise between our future education leaders, be it a panel of teachers, a classroom of developmental psychology majors, or a seminar of law and policy scholars. What does a world where boys like Hikaru can shine look like, and how do we get there?