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Confronting youth suicide: Seeking ways to stop young people from taking their own lives

by

Staff Writer

A grand piano stands silently in a tatami room at Naoko Nakashima’s home in Toride, Ibaraki Prefecture. It has not been played in almost two years.

Nakashima’s grandmother gave the piano to her when she was 5 years old and she practiced every day in a bid to become a professional pianist.

But in November 2015, just before she was supposed to start a high school specializing in music, Nakashima took her own life. She was 15 years old.

In the wake of Nakashima’s death, her parents, Junko and Takanobu, found pieces of evidence that led them to believe their only child had been a victim of bullying at school.

They found a small memo in the pocket of Nakashima’s school uniform that contained a solitary word — “kusaya,” which is a dried horse mackerel known for its strong smell.

Nakashima had also scribbled notes in her diary — another present from her grandmother — that said such things as “I don’t want to be bullied” and “I don’t want to be alone.”

Meanwhile, Nakashima’s supposed friends had also written messages in a scrapbook that was given to her parents on the day of what would have been her junior high school graduation that said such things as “I don’t like you,” “You are annoying” and “You are s—-.”

In March 2016, however, the Toride Board of Education ruled that Nakashima’s death was unrelated to bullying. It took another year before the same body reversed its original ruling, officially recognizing in May earlier this year that bullying had in fact been a factor in Nakashima’s death.

“It’s outrageous,” Takanobu Nakashima says. “The board of education clearly didn’t want to recognize that bullying was involved or that the teacher failed to take appropriate action. Meanwhile, precious lives are being lost.”

Sobering statistics

Sept. 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. According to the World Health Organization, about 800,000 people worldwide take their own lives every year — the equivalent of one death every 40 seconds. Up to 25 times as many people around the globe each year attempt suicide.

Japan has the highest suicide rate among the Group of Seven member states, according to World Health Organization data. The suicide rate in Japan in 2015 stood at 15.4 per 100,000 people. By comparison, the suicide rate in the United States, which had the second-highest ratio, stood at 12.6 per 100,000 people.

It’s worth noting that Japan has actually recorded a significant drop in the number of deaths by suicide in recent years, peaking at 34,427 deaths in 2003 before declining to 21,897 in 2016.

However, the number of children aged 19 and under who take their own lives each year has remained static over the past couple of decades, with authorities registering around 400 to 500 deaths per annum.

Koju Matsubayashi, head of the student guidance policy section of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, stresses the importance of taking comprehensive action to prevent children from taking their own lives.

“Children commit suicide for a number of reasons that are often intertwined in a complex manner over issues related to school, home and so on,” Matsubayashi says. “It’s important for schools to notice what is troubling students.”

In July, the government approved a plan that aims to cut the country’s suicide rate by 30 percent by 2026. The new guidelines emphasize the importance of implementing measures to prevent suicide among children and young people, promoting education about the ways in which children can seek help, and helping peers and adults recognize warning signs.

Matsubayashi says the government wants all 27,500 elementary and junior high schools nationwide to employ a school counsellor by 2019. It also plans to double the number of school social workers from the current 5,000 in the same time frame. Furthermore, the government wants to create a new online platform in addition to the 24-hour telephone service it currently operates for children to contact about their problems.

“We’d love to eliminate such tragedies altogether, but the reality is several hundred children are taking their lives (each year),” Matsubayashi says. “It’s important to teach children how to get help as soon as possible … because it becomes harder and harder to find help once they’re already suffering. The light at the end of the tunnel gets darker and darker until they begin to start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as death.”

Data compiled by the National Police Agency shows that 320 elementary, junior high and high school students killed themselves in 2016. Of this figure, 116 are believed to have killed themselves over an issue relating to school (including 34 over bad grades and six as a result of bullying), 75 are believed to have taken their own lives over an issue relating to family and 25 over relationship problems.

Yoshitomo Takahashi, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Tsukuba and an expert on suicide issues, says the measures that are currently in place to prevent children and teenagers from committing suicide are “totally insufficient,” adding that too much emphasis is placed on bullying.

“The media is partly to blame for this because the coverage makes it seem like youth suicide is primarily caused by bullying,” Takahashi says. “However, that is only part of the reason. Children take their own lives for various reasons, including individual mental health problems, financial issues and even domestic abuse and neglect.”

The World Health Organization has compiled a list of guidelines for media regarding news reports on suicide, recommending that publications refrain from describing the method of suicide and avoid sensationalizing the deaths. Such guidelines could arguably apply to the entertainment industry as well, although television producers and musicians still flirt with the issue from time to time.

Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” a drama about a bullied teenage girl named Hannah Baker who commits suicide after recording 13 tapes for the people she blamed for wanting to end her own life, sparked controversy earlier this year. Despite the vivid depiction of Baker’s death, some argued that the drama glorified suicide, and several deaths in the United States and Peru have since been linked to the show.

Meanwhile, Takahashi says Japanese publishers have improved the way that they have covered suicide in recent years. However, he adds, the media in Japan do tend to focus extensively on bullying.

“High-risk children will identify themselves with such suicide reports,” Takahashi says. “There is no way that they can remain unaffected.”

Media attention

In 2015, a white paper on suicide prevention reported that the number of suicides among those aged 18 or younger has spiked around Sept. 1 in every year of the past 42 years since 1972. Sept. 1 coincides with the end of the summer vacation.

The report has led domestic media to initiate something of a “Sept. 1 suicide watch” over the past two years. A number of news organizations took up the issue in the week leading up to Sept. 1 and celebrities such as TV personality Shoko Nakagawa implored teenagers via Twitter on Aug. 31 not to take their own lives.

“I don’t understand why (the media) doesn’t see that the more they cover the Sept. 1 issue, the bigger the problem will become,” Takahashi says. “Just because they’re covering it with good intentions doesn’t make it alright.”

According to the Mainichi Shimbun, three cases of suspected teen suicide were reported this year between Aug. 30 and Sept. 1.

Although bullying is just one factor among many in youth suicide, it’s hard to ignore its wider impact on teenagers in Japan.

According to the education ministry, a record high 224,540 cases of bullying were reported in 2015. The same survey, however, also found that almost 40 percent of schools nationwide denied that any bullying had occurred in their institutions, a statistic that is equally alarming — both education experts and government officials agree that it is almost impossible to eradicate bullying completely.

Indeed, education official Matsubayashi says the government actually scrutinizes municipalities that submit low numbers of reported bullying cases, calling on teachers to identify cases of bullying and making sure that these cases are resolved systematically.

The government passed an anti-bullying law in 2013 after the suicide of a bullied 13-year-old boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, in 2011 that made headlines due to the apparent negligence of the school and local board of education. The law requires schools and local governments to report “serious cases” of bullying that have led to significant physical or mental damage, including suicide.

Naoki Ogi has a 44-year career in education, including 22 years as a junior and senior high school teacher, and is currently a professor at Hosei University as well as the head of a clinical education research center called Niji (Rainbow).
Naoki Ogi has a 44-year career in education, including 22 years as a junior and senior high school teacher, and is currently a professor at Hosei University as well as the head of a clinical education research center called Niji (Rainbow). | COURTESY OF NAOKI OGI

However, education expert Naoki Ogi, better known as “Ogi Mama” as a result of his warm and caring character, does not hide his anger toward the schools and boards of education that continue to cover up bullying cases, including Nakashima’s suicide in Toride.

In a recent phone interview with The Japan Times, Ogi says at least 33 children have taken their lives due to bullying since the law was enacted.

“These children die in so much pain, leaving behind notes or messages on their smartphones,” Ogi says. “However, schools and boards of education continue to ignore these children in spite of the law. While a number of children have taken their own lives, many more are still suffering from bullying.”

Ogi has a 44-year career in education, including 22 years as a junior and senior high school teacher, and is currently a professor at Hosei University as well as the head of a clinical education research center called Niji (Rainbow). He has written more than 200 books and often appears on television as a commentator and holds lectures nationwide on education and child-rearing issues.

Last month, he worked with the nonprofit Gentle Heart Project at an anti-bullying event and delivered a heartwarming written message to children contemplating suicide, reminding them of how precious their lives are.

“These children are so broken when they die,” Ogi says. “They’re completely weak, exhausted and have lost all sense of judgment. If we don’t act fast, more and more children will also fall victim. The fact that we have children taking their own lives because of bullying suggests that the system is failing them.”

Shinichiro and Midori Komori, founders of Gentle Heart Project, say that little has changed in the almost two decades since they lost their only daughter, Kasumi, to suicide after she experienced bullying at school.

Founded in 2002, the NPO’s name comes from one of the last things their daughter, who was 15 at the time, said before she took her own life: “The most important thing in life is to have a gentle heart.”

“I feel that people don’t really grasp the seriousness of bullying,” Midori Komori says. “However, bullying is a form of abuse that is inflicted on a child by another. Bullying is physical or psychological abuse, just as ignoring someone is the same as neglect.”

Shinichiro and Midori Komori lost their daughter, Kasumi, in 1998.
Shinichiro and Midori Komori lost their daughter, Kasumi, in 1998. | MASAMI ITO

Kasumi took her own life in 1998, just 3½ months after she started high school. She had told her parents that she was having problems at school with a few of the students and Midori Komori says she visited the school 12 times to discuss the issue. Seeing her daughter suffering in obvious pain, Komori even sought psychiatric help for her daughter.

After her death, however, the school denied that any bullying had occurred on the school grounds. As a result, the couple decided to look into her death themselves.

They sent letters to Kasumi’s former classmates and parents, asking for their cooperation in finding out the truth behind Kasumi’s death. But only a few responded, apologizing for not being able to help their daughter. Some parents sent back the letter unopened, while others even included messages asking the couple to leave them alone. To mark the memorial service 49 days after Kasumi’s death, the Komoris invited her ex-classmates over for an informal gathering. They prepared a variety of food and then waited for their guests to arrive. No one showed up.

The Komoris eventually became isolated in their own community.

Shinichiro Komori says there is no support for parents who have lost their children due to bullying because their allegations are, in most cases, not considered to be a crime.

“All we wanted was to know the truth, but the school didn’t want us to uncover the truth because it would show that it did nothing to prevent her death,” he says. “Saving face should be worth nothing compared to the life that was lost.”

Looking after those left behind

Most people struggle to deal with the death of a relative, but Takahashi says that suicide strikes families particularly hard and encourages people to seek professional help.

“Suicide is different in the sense that it often leaves bereaved family and friends in an extreme state,” Takahashi says. “They are left with a sense of sadness but they also have questions about the triggers and sometimes even direct their anger toward the deceased. That’s why it is extremely important to take care of the people left behind.”

As far as Junko and Takanobu Nakashima are concerned, their grief is far from over. Like the Komoris, they decided to look into their daughter’s death themselves, talking to her former classmates and gathering information.

In March 2016, four months after Naoko’s death, the Toride Board of Education ruled that her suicide was not caused by bullying. It did, however, establish an independent committee to investigate the case.

By that stage, however, the Nakashimas had lost trust in the Toride Board of Education and the committee. On May 29, the Nakashimas demanded that the committee be disbanded. The following day, the Toride Board of Education overturned its original conclusion that Naoko’s death was not related to bullying.

In June, the independent committee was disbanded. Last month, then-Ibaraki Gov. Masaru Hashimoto met with the Nakashimas and promised that the prefecture would take over the investigation — a move that both government officials and experts agree is unheard of.

And while the Nakashimas have been able to move forward a little, they are still caught in the middle of an investigation almost two years after her death.

“So much time has passed and we can’t turn back the clock,” Junko Nakashima says. “It is about time for everyone to own up to the truth. Please don’t hurt our daughter any more.”


Alternative measures targeting young people at risk of suicide


Where to get help

24-hour Child SOS Dial: 0120-078310; Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology; 24 hours

Child Line: 0120-997777; www.childline.or.jp; Monday through Saturday 4-9 p.m., open Sunday in some areas, including Tokyo, Aichi, Hiroshima and Okinawa

Inochi no Denwa: 0570-783-556; www.inochinodenwa.org; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. every day; free every 10th of the month at 0120-783-556, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

TELL Japan (English only): 03-5774-0992; telljp.com; 9 a.m.-11 p.m. daily; chat service available for 13-year-olds and above, every Saturday 10:30 p.m.-Sunday 9 a.m.