A string of suicides linked to bullying in the Maritime Self-Defense Force has raised suspicions that other cases have not yet been addressed.
“I can’t believe bullying led to another suicide,” said the 60-year-old mother of the latest crewman to take his own life.
The details of the crewman’s death, including his name and rank, have not been disclosed. “It makes me wonder if this is just the tip of the iceberg,” the woman said.
The MSDF said Monday that the crewman, who served on a destroyer, killed himself earlier this year after months of bullying by his superior, a petty officer first class.
“We’ve had other suicides traced to bullying, and we failed to stop another this time,” Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of staff of the MSDF, told reporters at a news conference Monday. “I deeply regret it.”
Kawano rejected the claim by the captain of the warship that he didn’t know about the petty officer’s bullying. “It’s unthinkable (for someone in the captain’s position) to be unaware,” he said.
Acknowledging that the “understanding of the crew member’s mental condition was insufficient,” Kawano expressed his intention to take steps to put a stop to further suicides.
In 2008, the Fukuoka High Court ordered the government to pay ¥3.5 million in damages to the parents of an MSDF sailor who killed himself as a result of bullying by a ranking officer.
The sailor hanged himself aboard the 3,550-ton destroyer Sawagiri, based in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, during drills off Shikoku in 1999.
The parents filed the lawsuit in June 2001, arguing their son had complained about excessive discipline and bullying, including being reprimanded in front of his fellow service members.
The presiding judge ruled that 21-year-old petty officer third class “killed himself as a result of depression, which was caused by stress from the superior’s insulting remarks and actions.”
Meanwhile, in April, the Tokyo High Court ordered the government to pay some ¥73 million in compensation for the 2004 suicide of a crewman of the destroyer Tachikaze. According to the lawsuit, the 21-year-old crewman was repeatedly hit on the head and shot with an air gun. The crewman left a suicide note accusing his superior on the destroyer, a petty officer second class, of bullying him.
The MSDF followed up by handing out questionnaires to all 190 crew members of the Tachikaze to determine whether they had observed or been aware of acts of extortion or violence. At the district court trial, however, the MSDF said the results had already been discarded.
After the ruling, Kawano in May apologized in person to the mother of the Tachikaze crewman, a gesture she took as a sign the MSDF may be more willing now to acknowledge the link between suicide and bullying.
“They didn’t (initially) acknowledge that our son’s death was due to bullying,” she said. “In that sense, you could say our lawsuit had some impact (on MSDF behavior).”
An MSDF insider said the Tachikaze suicide ruling has made the service branch “realize it’s essential to demonstrate we are firm in trying to eradicate bullying-related suicide, not only to the public but also to those in the MSDF.”
“(It’s unbelievable) that no one noticed (what was going on),” the Tachikaze crewman’s mother said. “It brings me to tears when I think of how the relatives (of the latest victim) must feel. It’s such as shame” no one prevented his suicide.