OPINION: Preventing Youth Suicides in Japan

OPINION: Preventing Youth Suicides in Japan
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Why do more than 300 Japanese schoolchildren take their own lives every year?

A recent report by a third-party body of the Nagoya Board of Education linked the suicide last November of a junior high school boy to bullying and faulted school officials for their handling of the situation surrounding the victim. The case underlines the need to improve systems at schools and in communities to prevent suicides by youths, along with the question of how to beef up steps against bullying in schools. The 12-year-old boy, who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train, left a suicide note stating that he could not stand being bullied any longer.

The board of education’s probe found that the boy not only faced verbal and other forms of bullying by his classmates but also felt strong stress over the atmosphere in his class and the attitude of members of his table tennis club. His homeroom teacher and the teacher in charge of the club did not take other students’ behavior toward the boy seriously and failed to take effective action to deal with his situation.

The probe also highlighted the fact that school authorities failed to respond properly to the results of the boy’s psychological test and that their system to grasp and make judgments on the situations of each of their students did not function properly.

The test carried out last October showed that the boy needed help and support, citing the possibility that he was being bullied. The same month, he told a member of the table tennis club that he almost could not keep going any more. It was learned that he tried to find out how much a railway company will charge if someone kills himself by jumping in front of a train, and that he erased the records of smartphone games he had been playing — a possible indication that he was prepared to kill himself. A survey of students at the school after the boy’s death found that 20 of them actually saw the boy being bullied.

Shortly before the Nagoya report was issued earlier this month, a 13-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy killed themselves in Aomori Prefecture — both around the time the second semester opened at their schools. In each case, the parents consulted with teachers about the harassment of their children by other students, and officials of the schools questioned those students and cautioned them.

Still, the suicides of the two students were not prevented. In the girl’s case, she consulted with her homeroom teacher last year over problems related to her personal relations with her classmates, and her father told the school that she had been slandered by other students through the Line messaging application. The Aomori Board of Education plans to set up a panel to probe the girl’s suicide.

It is necessary to investigate the factors behind the suicides of schoolchildren and consider what countermeasures can be taken to prevent future tragedies. As the Nagoya and Aomori cases indicate, teachers and officials often fail to notice signs of distress given by students and take proper steps. The report on the Nagoya case calls for improving teachers’ ability to correctly sense what their students are feeling, which will require proper training of the teachers.

But the education ministry and local boards of education should also think about whether their policies are making teachers too busy and overburdened to be able to carefully monitor each of their students’ situations. The Nagoya report’s call for beefing up personnel to ensure careful responses to problems confronting individual students makes sense if such individuals are experienced and capable.

More than 300 schoolchildren take their own lives for a variety of reasons every year. Based on data over the past 40 years on suicides by youths up to 18 years old, a government report last year pointed out that the number of youths taking their own lives sharply increases on Sept. 1 — after summer vacation is over — and also when spring school recess is over. It explains that young people are likely to suffer upsetting emotions when their environment significantly changes. In the case of the Nagoya boy, it appears that his lonesomeness deepened as his environment suddenly changed when he entered junior high school.

The Nagoya report also pointed out that suicides by teenagers are often not accompanied by advance signs. An expert who led the investigation said it was hard to grasp what eventually led the boy to kill himself. As the probe concluded, there will be limits to analyzing what he was thinking before he took his own life. There will also be limits to what teachers and officials can do to prevent suicides.

Many children who become isolated at school or at home think that the schools or their homes are not where they belong.

To help such youths, it will be important and useful to provide avenues of communication where they can express signals of distress without worrying about their relationships with others and where they can feel at ease. Some nonprofit organizations are providing refuges or telephone counseling services for youths. National and local governments should support attempts of this kind both financially and morally so that networks to help youths who feel psychologically cornered will expand across the country.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole