Japan in Anguish as Bullied Kids Commit Suicide

Education Official Makes Public Plea to Stop Wave of Tragedy


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 Epidemic

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.

Copycat Suicides?

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.

Japanese authorities still don't know the identity of the first person who wrote the note threatening suicide, or if it was a student. It is possible first note and subsequent notes were hoaxes.

But the problem of bullying Japan is very real.

The Nail Hammered Down

Deeply rooted in Japanese culture, there is an old expression: The nail that stands out gets hammered down. Adolescent children in middle and high school are often the nails that are hammered down by other students. They are teased, picked on, bullied for not being strong enough, smart enough, cool enough or not measuring up to the expectations of the group.

A non-profit organization, Childline, which provides more than 50 support centers for bullied kids in Japan, says it handled more than 120,000 calls from distressed children last year. Shiho Kato, the secretary general of Childline, says the number of calls has been increasing every year. And the hotlines have seen an even greater increase in calls since that first highly-publicized suicide note.

According to Kato, many of the hotline callers speak of "unpleasant experiences in school, though they are often not sure if what they go through qualifies as bullying.

"Many children," Kato says, "have no one to talk to. They feel they can't even talk to their parents."

Kato says there is too little "conversation and communication" between children and adults in Japan. When faced with problems, children tend to "bottle things up inside," making matters worse -- leading some to believe that suicide is the only way out.

Rie Ohkawa's parents learned that the hard way. Her family is one of the few in Japan to go public with their daughter's plight. Holding up a picture of Rie, singing at a karaoke club the night before she died, Kazuo Ohkawa says, "It's beyond anger; I feel nothing but sorrow and sadness."

The Ohkawas hope that by publicizing their daughter's plight, Japanese society will think more about the toll being taken by bullying in Japanese schools.

It often takes an enormous crisis to change attitudes in Japanese society. This could be such a crisis if the suicides over bullying continue to rise. In the meantime, Japanese society seems to be collectively holding its breath, in fear of tomorrow's headlines.

How many other children are out there, who can no longer handle that all too rough right of passage in Japanese schools?