Japan in Anguish as Bullied Kids Commit Suicide

ByABC News
November 18, 2006, 12:01 PM

Nov. 18, 2006 — -- Rie Ohkawa spent the last Friday night of her life at a karaoke club with her parents. The next morning, the 12-year-old girl jumped to her death from the family's eighth-floor apartment.

The note she left on her desk offered no clues to explain her death. It only read, "I am going to kill myself. Good bye."

But her parents, teachers and some friends believe they know what drove the middle school student to commit suicide -- "bullying." A group of students had relentlessly teased and taunted Rie because she was small, often sick and not very athletic. The "dwarf," they called her, until she could take no more.

Bullying has plagued Japanese schools for as long as anyone can remember. The pressure on Japanese students to conform to group behavior is legendary. But the problem recently took a dramatic and frightening turn for the worse.

At the beginning of this month, the Japanese minister of education received a chilling letter from a young student, threatening to kill himself on the coming weekend if other students didn't stop bullying him. In an unusual step for Japan, where social problems are usually kept under wraps, the minister, Bunmei Ibuiki, made the letter public and urged the writer not to commit suicide.

"We will try out best to help you out," Ibuiki said in a televised plea to the student. "But we also need you to be strong and keep the will to live."

Almost immediately, there was widespread concern that the publicity would spark a wave of copycat suicide threats or attempts. In Japan, where suicide historically has been viewed as an honorable way to resolve conflicts, that fear was not unfounded.

Over the next few days, there would be at least 24 more letters threatening suicide. Three young students, including Rie, killed themselves over the next weekend. And one elementary school principal hanged himself from a tree. He reportedly had been reprimanded for his slow response to a case of bullying at his school.