Yukitomo and Mitsuko Hiraga do not anticipate the onset of spring with the same relish as most others. Each April, as cherry trees in full bloom welcome freshmen to colleges, the couple are reminded of their son who died soon after taking the first step toward his dream.

Their son, Takehiro, 20, died of acute alcohol poisoning at a party for the University of Chiba’s orienteering club, which was held to recruit freshmen in April 1996 — just 10 days after he attended the entrance ceremony for the school’s education faculty.

“He was a child with a gentle heart,” his father said. “He said he wanted to become a counselor for disabled children.”

The parents remain ignorant of the details of Takehiro’s death because his colleagues at the party would not talk of the night’s events, the father said. No students were punished in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“What happened to him?” the father asked. “He was always a careful kid. I still call my son’s name everyday.”

Taking up the investigation on their own, the parents found that several other students had become seriously ill at the party, where some were guzzling drinks in one go, a partying custom known as “ikki” in Japanese.

He believes Takehiro may have survived had his colleagues recognized the seriousness of his condition and called an ambulance earlier.

A few months after Takehiro’s death, Hiraga received a phone call from Hitoshi Kaku, the father of a 19-year-old university freshman who died in 1991 after being forced to drink too much at a party by older members of his school’s ski club.

The Hiragas joined the Liaison Council to Prevent Ikki, a nonprofit group established by Kaku and other parents who lost their children in drinking-related accidents. The group aims to raise public awareness of what they call “alcohol harassment.”

“By appealing to the public (for understanding of the danger of alcohol), I hope at least no more parents will feel the same sorrow as us,” Yukitomo Hiraga said.

And their campaign may have partly led to the decreased popularity of the practice in recent years, compared with the days when ikki calls resounded from every bar. The term was even chosen as “hip phrase of the year” in 1985.

The increasing number of damage suits being filed by people forced into drinking by their colleagues or superiors is also helping people recognize the potentially serious consequences alcohol may bring and the heavy responsibility that may accompany binge drinking.

But the practice has not altogether stopped. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department, 11,467 people in metropolitan Tokyo were taken by ambulance to hospitals for acute alcohol poisoning in 1999, 3,043 of whom were required to stay overnight.

When the nonprofit group called last year for information on alcohol harassment, it received reports on 182 cases nationwide during April and May. A majority of the cases involved college seniors or superiors at workplaces intentionally coercing their juniors or subordinates into drinking.

“Tradition,” “to liven up a party” and “to deepen the sense of unity” were the top three reasons cited for coerced drinking, according to the reports.

A 24-year-old freshman of Mitsui Corp. died in 1995 after he engaged in a “traditional” ritual at a welcoming party of the company’s dormitory, in which freshmen drink in one gulp about three liters of beer poured into a large trophy cup.

A 19-year-old freshman of Doshisha University in Kyoto drowned the same year in the Kamogawa River after being pulled into the water by seniors following a drinking binge.

Such folly has “traditionally” been forced on freshman recruits at annual welcoming parties for one of the institute’s tennis societies.

There have even been cases in which professors supervising college clubs and medical students have encouraged binge drinking, suggesting ignorance of the dangers of alcohol.

“It is virtually impossible to resist such coercion when they are in a group,” said Kaku, who represents the nonprofit organization.

Among the reports the group received was one from a company freshman who said he faced continuous bullying and harassment at work after refusing to drink at a company party.

Another quoted a university student who was forced to drink — even in the toilet where he fled to escape from his senior colleagues.

Men are more likely to be targets of alcohol harassment than women. “The social stereotype that ‘men have to drink’ is behind alcohol harassment,” said Megumi Miura, a staffer at the nonprofit group.

“Japanese society is tolerant toward alcohol and many things are condoned if they are done under the influence of alcohol.”

Other types of alcohol harassment are also common, including violence and sexual harassment at drinking parties that company members and those from other organizations are effectively obliged to attend, the group said.

“We would like more people to know alcohol harassment is a human rights violation and can even become a crime,” Miura said.

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