Cabinet meets over schoolboy suicides

The suicides in the past fortnight of two 13-year-old schoolboys who had been tormented by bullies have shocked Japan and again raised serious questions about the nation's highly competitive education system. An emergency cabinet meeting was held yesterday to discuss the problem of ijime, or bullying, in schools, which is often pushed to extreme lengths in Japan but is systematically under-reported by schoolteachers who fear professional criticism. Ironically only minutes after the meeting ended the death of the second boy - as yet unnamed - was announced on television.

The case which sparked the national uproar was the discovery by his mother of Kiyoteru Okochi's body, hanging from a persimmon tree in the garden of his house on 27 November. The boy, from Nishio in Aichi prefecture in central Japan, left behind a four-page suicide note saying he could no longer stand the beatings and extortion of money he had suffered for over a year at the hands of bullies in school.

However, it was over a week before details of the case emerged. Initially the boy's school tried to cover up the suicide by reporting it to the local education board as a "sudden death". The headmaster also told the school's pupils not to talk about the death in public. When the suicide was published in the press, the headmaster finally apologised.

The boy's father, Yoshiharu Okochi, while accepting some of the blame for himself, has bitterly attacked the education system, which he claims is too preoccupied with getting pupils to pass exams at the expense of everything else.

"Schools are very good at giving pupils knowledge, but they aren't able to understand how the children feel," he said in a telephone interview. "The pupils must be very unsure whom they can talk with when they have a problem, because the school doesn't want to listen."

Mr Okochi said he took his son on a holiday to Australia at the beginning of last month after suspecting he was having trouble at school. But the boy denied to his father that he was being bullied. Three weeks later he was dead.

According to the Education Ministry, 23,358 cases of bullying were reported last year and 31 schoolchildren committed suicide. The critics claim school violence is exacerbated by the pressures of an exam system that forces children as young as 12 to attend cramming schools to improve their marks in the hope of eventually aspiring to a job with a top company.

In a special report on bullying issued yesterday, the Education Ministry itself partially admitted some of these criticisms. The report called on teachers to pay more attention to the problems of stress and competition among students to pass entrance exams. The report said that in a survey of senior high schools, only 14 per cent of pupils said they were satisfied with school life. But there were no concrete suggestions in the report on how teachers should learn to pick up the cries for help of pupils being driven to despair by bullying.

"I'm sorry, I wanted to live longer," wrote Kiyoteru Okochi in his suicide note. "Father, thank you for the trip to Australia; Mother, thank you for making tasty food; older brother, sorry for being an inconvenience." Having explained how he had been repeatedly dunked in a river until he feared he would drown, and was forced to give money on many occasions to his tormentors, Kiyoteru concluded: "These days they bully me so hard and demand large sums of money although I have none. I can't st a nd it any more."