The alarming jump in the number of reported cases of bullying at schools nationwide — a record 414,378 in fiscal 2017, up 91,235 from the previous year — is attributed to greater efforts by teachers and school officials to identify even minor cases and take early action to prevent them from escalating into serious damage to the victims. At the same time, the number of grave cases in which bullying victims suffered severe physical or psychological damage also rose, reaching 474, up 78 from the year before. Ten of the 250 schoolchildren who took their own lives last year were found to have suffered from bullying at school. Bullying continues to be a grave problem that needs urgent attention and action.

The law to promote efforts to stop bullying was introduced in the wake of the 2011 suicide of a 13-year-old boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, who had been bullied at his junior high school. Responding to criticism that the boy killed himself after no action was taken to stop his bullying, the education ministry has instructed boards of education and schools to identify and report on broad forms of bullying, including seemingly minor cases, so that teachers and school officials can intervene before the situation escalates to a dangerous level.

The law defines bullying as a condition in which a child feels psychological or physical pain caused by the acts of other children. The number of reported bullying cases at elementary, junior high and high schools across Japan have increased nearly sixfold from around 70,000 in fiscal 2011. The education ministry says the surge in the number of bullying cases is proof that these efforts are paying off.

Still, the sheer number testifies to the breadth of the problem at schools and must be taken seriously. According to the ministry’s tally of the reports from schools, 85 percent of the reported bullying cases last year had been resolved by this spring, but the rest are still being dealt with.

That there were as many as 474 “grave” cases points to the difficulty of preventing serious damage from bullying. Of the victims, nearly 200 sustained serious mental or bodily harm. About 330 of the victims were forced to stay away from school for 30 days or more. There are still cases in which schools didn’t identify bullying before it resulted in serious consequences. In the case of a junior high school girl in Hiroshima who died in July 2017 in a suspected suicide, it was only after her death that the school and the local board of education acknowledged that she had in fact been habitually bullied by her classmates, even though her parents had consulted the school’s officials several times over the suffering the girl had endured.

Previously, it was believed that many teachers were reluctant to acknowledge that bullying was taking place among the children in their classes. The sharp increase in the number of reported bullying cases may indicate that such an attitude is changing. There are views, however, that the efforts to identify and act on even minor cases is adding to the burden on schoolteachers. Efforts to deal with bullying of children should not just be left to the schools; their families and the local communities also need to be involved.

What used to be a wide regional disparity in the number of reported bullying cases per 1,000 children — a sign of the gap in the attitudes of teachers and school officials across regions in dealing with the problem of bullying — has narrowed significantly, although the gap still exists. At the same time, the education ministry’s statistics show that about 25 percent of the schools nationwide did not report a single case of bullying in fiscal 2017. It must be shared among teachers and school officials that finding bullying cases at their schools is not the problem, but leaving bullying unaddressed is.

What’s crucial in the effort to stop the bullying problem is for adults to notice the signs from the victimized children as quickly as possible. In that sense, a growing number of bullying cases taking place at social networking sites, in which the victims often suffer from verbal abuse in messages from their classmates or are ostracized in digital communications, are difficult for teachers and parents to find. The education ministry’s statistics show that reported cases of bullying via the internet amount to 3 percent of the total. But that could indicate there is much more latent damage from bullying in cyberspace that is remaining under schools’ radar. The problem requires closer attention.

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