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GINOWAN, Okinawa - Bullying has always been a problem in Japanese schools, but if you’re a mixed race student the odds of being picked on by your classmates skyrocket.

In Japan, bullying is called "ijime." After a national study showed that the child suicide rate escalated in recent years because of bullying, the government set standards to combat it, including punishing offending students and taking action against teachers who don’t step in to halt it.

Following an incident in 2004 when a Japanese student threw a firecracker at a group of mixed-race students at a Japanese school gym, a survey of 45 students at the Okinawa AmerAsian School showed 24 had experienced some kind of bullying. Most of the students had American fathers and Okinawan mothers.

But it’s been tough to get laws on the books and school officials are still reluctant to address the issue, fearing that teachers charged with turning their backs — or even bullying students themselves — would "lose face," according to private school officials who spoke Sunday at a seminar on bullying at the school.

"In the Japanese schools there’s this total denial concerning the problem," said Cheiron McMahill, an American professor at Daito Bunka University in Tokyo and founder of the Multicultural Education Research Institute.

"In a society where anyone who is different is singled out — to look different or not speak the language makes you an even greater target," said McMahill, who has lived in Japan for the past 20 years and is married to a Japanese.

"My oldest daughter dropped out of a Japanese school twice due to bullying," she said. That experience drove her to open a small school for multilingual and multicultural students and start the nonprofit agency.

"Because of the suicide cases in Japan, the government has spent a lot of money on the ijime problem," McMahill said. "But there’s really nothing for non-Japanese."

Discussions with Ginowan school officials resulted in an exchange program with the local schools and workshops for teachers, said Naomi Noiri, acting executive director of the Okinawa AmerAsian School and a sociology professor at the University of the Ryukyus.

She said she urges the participants to look at the similarities between different cultures.

Bullying on Okinawa "is like a disease," said a 17-year-old graduate of the school, who had to go on to a Japanese high school.

"When someone is picked on, everybody else is reluctant to come up and defend you because then they will be a bullying target," he said, noting it was hard at first to make the switch to a Japanese school.

"But after they found that I am good at baseball, they started to take me as one of them, not an outsider," he said.

McMahill’s group has formed a hot line and Web site ( ) to help parents of multicultural children deal with the issue. They also operate the only hot line in Japan that offers help in several languages, including English and Spanish.

"Part of the problem is that in the Japanese culture, confrontation is not acceptable," McMahill said.

She recommended that students be encouraged to report bullying to school officials and tell their parents of any incidents.

Amanda Joan Gillis, a British mother of three and assistant professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, said the problem comes in many forms.

"There are all kinds of bullying — children against children, adults against adults, teachers against teachers," she said.

Gillis, who is married to a Japanese man, has three sons. She advised parents of multicultural families to "be patient."

"If your children are good at sports or music, they will gain respect," she said.

But don’t be boastful or swagger, she added. "In Japanese schools, self-confidence and uniqueness tends to be viewed as showing off."

Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.

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