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As summer vacations end, grass-roots movements in Japan work on counseling suicidal students and truants

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

As summer draws to an end, many begin to feel the post-holiday blues. But for some children, this time of year triggers a different level of anxiety: the terror of going back to school.

The first day of September is the deadliest day for troubled young people in Japan, according to a 2015 white paper published by the Cabinet Office.

The day when most elementary, middle and high school students return to class has caused a total of some 130 people under 18 to kill themselves over the past four decades up to 2015, the paper said — the most compared with all other days of the year.

A separate report by the Japan Support Center for Suicide Countermeasures in early August found that the number of middle and high school students who committed suicide increased toward the end of August.

With statistics indicating that the last few weeks of summer correlate with a rise in suicide among people under 18, a grass-roots movement called Futoko wa Fuko Janai (Truants Aren’t Unhappy People) held events nationwide Sunday to ease the pressure of going back to school.

“What is most important is for young students to see the words ‘Truants aren’t unhappy people’ and understand that there is a place and there are people that will be accepting of truants,” said Yudai Hirota, 23, who hosted one such event in the western Tokyo suburb of Machida on Sunday.

In recent years, public institutions such as the Kamakura City Library in Kanagawa Prefecture and Ueno Zoological Gardens in Tokyo have used social media in the past to support those reluctant to return to school in September. A tweet from the library in 2015, for example, said, “If you would rather die than go to school from September, remember that the library is here for you to feel safe.”

What such students need is “the support and understanding from the adults around them,” said Hirota, a former middle school truant who will start studying to become a social worker from October.

“My parents didn’t force me into going to school and they didn’t say, ‘You have to go.’ Instead, they asked me gently why I stopped going to school, and it made me happy to think that they were trying to understand me,” said 16-year-old Mizuki Tada, who participated in a panel discussion at the Machida event. Tada used to skip classes during her middle school years but is currently in high school.

“I think it’s important for truants to have someone who will be kind enough to listen to their concerns and worries,” she added.