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Friday, Nov. 24, 2006

Suicides lay bare bullying menace

Education ministry denies link but parents of victims beg to differ


By SETSUKO KAMIYA and AKEMI NAKAMURA
Staff writers

Eight years ago, Shinichiro and Midori Komori's 15-year-old daughter, Kasumi, committed suicide.

News photo
Midori Komori leads students in a workshop on bullying in November at Nogawa Junior High School in Kawasaki. SETSUKO KAMIYA PHOTO

It was only three months after their only child had started high school, and started being badgered by fellow students in the brass band.

Today, the Komoris, who are from Yokohama, speak publicly about the tragedy, hoping that telling Kasumi's story will help to prevent the same thing from happening to other children.

There is a sense of urgency to their work these days with a series of high-profile youth suicides since Oct. 11, when a 13-year-old boy in Fukuoka Prefecture killed himself, leaving behind a note saying he could no longer tolerate being bullied. It was later learned that his teacher had led in the harassment.

Since early this month, the education minister has received 36 letters, many anonymous and all apparently from children threatening to kill themselves because, despite having told the adults around them that they were being bullied, they felt nothing was done to help them. Several of those kids have since committed suicide.

"It's very hard to think about what happened, but we feel it's our responsibility as parents who have experienced (a suicide over bullying) to remember and talk about it, and to provide children with an opportunity to share on this issue," said Shinichiro Komori, 50, head of the nonprofit group Gentle Heart Project.

Launched four years ago in Kawasaki, the group is named after a comment Kasumi's parents heard her whisper a few days before her death -- that the most important thing is to have a gentle heart.

Midori, 49, and another member of the group speak at schools. They have been to 63 so far this year, and have been invited to about 240 schools and communities all over the country since the group started. They also hold panel discussions and concerts to help raise awareness on the issue.

One day in mid-November, Midori told her story during a 45-minute presentation to 800 students and teachers at Nogawa Junior High School in Kawasaki.

She spoke softly but firmly and the students were riveted by her story.

When Midori learned that Kasumi was being bullied, she spoke to the girl's teacher and also took her daughter to a counselor so she could talk about her problems, and then to a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication. She said Kasumi did everything diligently, but it didn't help.

"Now I realize I made a mistake," Midori told the students. "Even if she talked about the pain she was suffering, or took medication, she could not be saved unless the bullying stopped."

Midori described how she felt completely numb the day Kasumi died and how she began having thoughts of killing herself so she could be with her daughter.

As she spoke about how she and Shinichiro said together, "Thank you for being born to us," during the funeral and kissed their daughter goodbye, students began to cry.

"Even if you think someone is strange, that doesn't mean you should hurt that person," she said. "It's good that different people exist in this world."

Bullying has been a problem for a long time, but it is becoming more cruel as societal pressures increase and technology advances, according to Kojiro Imazu, an educational sociology professor at Nagoya University's graduate school.

Unlike a few decades ago when there was an obvious divide between the bullies, who were tough, troubled children, and their timid and weaker victims, these days any child can end up on either side of the line, according to Imazu.

The reason is that so many children suffer from stress, brought on by the pressures of such things as cram school and not having enough time to play with each other, he said. For some of them, bullying is a way to release this stress.

Added to this, the professor said, bullying methods are now more sophisticated and often harder to detect with the advance of technology. For example, kids can post cruel messages or send e-mail anonymously.

Another problem is that children who witness the bullying fear for themselves, so will not tell adults what is happening.

"Children who notice bullying are afraid they will become a target if they help the victims, so they don't help," Imazu said.

Students at Nogawa Junior High School agreed they were scared of becoming targets.

One student said during a workshop with Komori after her speech that if he found something a bully had taken from another student and hidden, he would give it back secretly.

"The guy who did it has power, so if he sees it, I could be the next target," he said.

Education experts blame the system. They say that not only has the education ministry, boards of education and schools all failed to take effective action against bullying, they have also tried to cover up the problem.

According to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology Ministry, there were 20,143 bullying cases reported by elementary, junior high and high schools in fiscal 2005.

The ministry also reported there had been no suicides as a result of bullying between fiscal 1999 and 2005, even though between 100 and 150 students killed themselves each year during that period.

Determining the cause of a suicide can be difficult as it is often due to a combination of factors, Imazu said, but if the education ministry or schools investigated more carefully, they would have concluded some of the deaths were due to bullying.

He added that if schools were to pay more attention to the problem, they would realize the number of bullying cases is much higher than the statistics.

The experts also criticize the media, saying they should focus more on the bullying and be more sensitive in their coverage of suicides, which they tend to sensationalize.

The World Health Organization's Department of Mental Health has guidelines for reporting on suicide. It asks the media not give simplistic explanations for a suicide, report details or sensationalize the death. The Japanese media often ignore these codes.

Yoshiki Tominaga, a clinical psychologist at Hyogo University of Teacher Education, said the intensive media coverage of the first teen suicides caused a national chain reaction.

"Whenever media carry a (sensationalized) suicide story, some people -- including adults -- are affected" and it may encourage them to kill themselves, Tominaga reckoned.

In the six weeks since the Fukuoka suicide, at least 12 more teenagers have killed themselves.

A similar wave of youth suicides occurred in 1994 after a 13-year-old boy in Aichi Prefecture killed himself and left a note alleging his classmates had bullied and extorted money from him.

Nagoya University's Imazu said schools should draw up a new bullying prevention program at the start of every school year. The plans should include ways to quickly discover and stop bullying, and should involve parents and police.

Hyogo university's Tominaga said schools should teach children that bullying tactics, such as extorting money, spreading nasty rumors on the Internet and stripping kids of their clothing, are crimes. He said students should also be taught how to control their emotions better.

The Komoris said the problems kids face in society are turning them into bullies and the violence is a cry for help. Bullying stems from emotional problems, Midori told the junior high students.

"In this competitive world, we've lost something important -- the ability to be kind," Shinichiro said.



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