If Japan wants to eliminate bullying in schools, it’s imperative that the education ministry first define in unequivocal terms exactly what behaviors qualify. Unless it does so, bullying will continue to be widely accepted as a rite of passage that its victims have to deal with on their own.

But a series of suicides by young people who silently suffered until they could no longer take the abuse will make it harder to minimize or ignore the problem. Although some had reported their plight to their parents and to school officials, responses were too little or too late to avoid the ensuing tragedies.

It’s when and how school officials intervene that hold the key to putting an end to the issue, which drew national attention in 2011 when a 13-year-old boy took his own life after being repeatedly bullied by three classmates in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. At the time, the Otsu Board of Education was accused of ignoring the boy’s distress and conducting a slipshod investigation. It took municipal officials to formally admit that bullying was the cause.

Recognizing the seriousness of the problem, both houses of the Diet passed a bill in 2013 to identify the earliest signs of bullying and provide students with support. Despite the good intentions, however, there are roughly 4,600 suicides annually among Japan’s school-age population. The persistence of the issue has led to a closer examination of whether third-party committees need to be given greater authority in investigating serious bullying.

The situation in the United States is not much better. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 22 percent of students aged 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school each year. About 14 percent said they were insulted or called names. Thirteen percent reported being the subject of rumors, and 6 percent were tripped, shoved or spit on. Students who are bullied often are chronically absent from school in an attempt to avoid their tormentors.

The link between bullying and suicide is hard to definitively establish. But evidence is mounting that the two are more than coincidence. The fact that almost 40 percent of students attempting suicide in the U.S. make their first try in elementary or middle school is one indication. Attempts rise sharply at age 12 — about sixth grade — and peak two to three years later, according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. That’s why the focus of suicide prevention programs needs to begin much earlier than in the past.

The usual approach to bullying is punishment. But it is actually counterproductive. An eight-year longitudinal study published in 2005 found that punitive discipline resulted in more antisocial behavior. That realization has led to interest in restorative justice programs. These aim to bring together both parties. When provided with sufficient training, teachers and counselors report better outcomes than traditional methods.

One of the problems in the U.S. is that although almost all states require school districts to have an anti-bullying policy, the policies vary widely. As a result, it’s hard for parents to know when they are on firm legal ground. Yet it’s better to err on the side of caution in light of the dire potential. That’s a lesson Japan needs to consider as it wrestles with the issue.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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