Sat, Nov 18, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Media possibly fueling teen suicides in Japan


Japan is struggling to halt a sudden wave of student suicides as the nation agonizes over the prevalence of bullying at schools, but some see a media frenzy as fueling the problem.

At least four children aged 12 to 14 have killed themselves and more have threatened to do likewise in the past 10 days since the education ministry announced it had received an anonymous letter from a student contemplating suicide.

Ironically, the government's commitment to address suicide may have triggered the deaths.

"We expected something like a chain reaction to follow our announcement," Education Minister Bunmei Ibuki acknowledged.

But the government decided to disclose the letter as it had been under fire for denying that suicides linked to bullying had taken place.

"We would have received criticism either way. Unless I showed my resolve that I would stand to be criticized, school principals and local education boards would not follow suit" and face the issue, Ibuki told reporters.

Ibuki has ordered schools to identify the students who threaten to commit suicide.

He also urged students to stop writing to him, saying they should instead find someone to talk to.

Japan's schools have long been notorious for bullying, a phenomenon experts attribute to the intense social pressure to blend in. Japan also has one of the world's highest rates of suicide.

Often school bullying becomes a vicious cycle as it is seen as a way out of victimization, said Yasuyuki Shimizu, who runs an anti-suicide group called Life Link.

He faulted Japanese educators for trying to make students feel guilty about contemplating suicide.

"The close-minded nature of the Japanese school system might be contributing to the problem. Rather than preach the importance of life to bullying victims, we must tell them there are ways to avoid the situation they face," he said.

The suicide wave comes at a delicate time for conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose top legislative priority is reforming education to teach "patriotism" -- a taboo since World War II.

Abe said his reforms would teach "moral values" missing in Japan's post-war prosperity.

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