Editorials

A court warns of bullying's grave consequences

The Otsu District Court has determined that the 2011 suicide of a 13-year-old boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, was caused by bullying by his junior high classmates. It ordered two of them and their parents to pay ¥37.5 million in damages to the victim’s family. In damages suits over suicide of bullying victims, the plaintiffs often face the high hurdle of proving not only that the bullying caused the victims to take their own life, but also that the bullies were able to foresee the risk of the victims killing themselves as a result of their acts — and in many cases courts have failed to recognize the causal link between the bullying and the suicide. The latest court ruling should serve as a reminder of the grave consequences that bullying can have, and prompt further actions by all relevant parties to prevent this evil phenomenon.

In the high-profile case of the Otsu boy, who jumped to his death in October 2011, municipal authorities initially acknowledged the acts of bullying against the victim but would not recognize that his death was the result of the bullying. Only after the boy’s family sued the city and his classmates, and a third-party probe confirmed the persistent violence and harassment inflicted on the victim, did the city admit fault for not preventing his suicide and reached a settlement with the family. Meanwhile, the case triggered the enactment of legislation requiring schools to report on and take adequate steps to deal with severe cases of bullying.

In its ruling Tuesday, the Otsu District Court determined that as the violence by the classmates escalated, the victim began to harbor “a strong sense of isolation and despair” and began to “wish to die.” During the court proceedings, the lawyers for the classmates argued that they believed they were just “playing” with the victim and did not consider their acts bullying. But the court ruled that the classmates who psychologically tormented the boy with their repeated bullying were able to foresee that the boy might kill himself, thus recognizing the causal link between the bullying and the victim’s suicide. The decision is significant in that it could open the door wider for providing relief to bullying victims.

The 2011 suicide of the Otsu boy and the inadequate response by the school and local authorities to his bullying and death led lawmakers in the Diet to enact a law to promote measures to prevent bullying, which took effect in 2013. The legislation defined bullying as acts that cause students mental or physical pain. Bullying cases in which the victims suffer serious mental, physical or financial damage, including those that result in forcing the victims to miss school for an extended period, are to be dealt with as “grave” situations that need to be reported to the education ministry and local government, with school officials required to look into the facts and disclose the outcome of the probe to the victims’ families.

The education ministry has urged schools to identify cases of bullying, including minor ones, in the early stages and respond before they develop into serious situations. In fact, the number of bullying cases recognized at elementary, junior high and high schools across Japan in fiscal 2017 hit a record 414,000 — roughly double the 2013 figure. The ministry views the surge as evidence that schools are taking steps in line with the legislation. However, the fact that one out of four schools have not reported any bullying suggests that the responses by schools are still mixed.

The number of grave cases in fiscal 2017 also rose by 78 to 474 — proof that damage from the bullying problem continues to be serious. Since 2013, 43 children have taken their own lives after suffering bullying at school. There are still cases in which the families of bullying victims complain that school officials do not take the bullying of their children seriously or dispute the municipal authorities’ conclusion that the victims’ suicides were not the result of bullying — which are often overturned by subsequent third-party probes, leaving the victims’ families distrustful of the schools’ and local officials’ responses to the bullying problem.

More than seven years after the Otsu boy’s suicide, it’s not yet clear whether the parties concerned have sufficiently learned lessons from his case and worked to stamp out bullying before it has serious consequences. The district court’s ruling, which once again warns of the irreparable consequences of bullying, needs to be taken seriously by all parties responsible for handling the problem.