Japan's Student Suicides

CHILDREN bullying other children is not a new phenomenon anywhere. But in Japan, a nation unaccustomed to airing its dirty linen in public, the problem is pervasive and recently has had a number of tragic consequences.

Last week, a 15-year-old boy from northern Japan killed himself; he said he could no longer stand the beatings and taunts he endured from classmates. Another junior high school student followed suit the next day. And late last month, a 13-year-old took his life after enduring bullying and extortion from classmates for years.

According to Japan's Education Ministry, 23,359 cases of bullying were reported in the country last year. In 1993, 31 schoolchildren committed suicide. The incidents of bullying and suicides are attributed to a number of factors, including the pressure to pass difficult high school and college entrance exams; a society where group harmony and conformity are valued over individuality and self-assertiveness; and a school environment in which children feel they can't rely on their teachers.

If something good has come from these incidents, it is that bullying has been pushed to the forefront of national consciousness. Parents are angry; the government has set up a special Cabinet council to examine the situation; and school administrators have begun a difficult process of self-examination.

Let us hope that with this public airing, teachers, parents, and administrators will be less likely to say, ``I just didn't realize.'' These young victims of bullying should never feel that they have nowhere to turn for help.

Last week, Japan's Education Ministry released its annual white paper subtitled, ``How to Nurture Children's Strength to Live.'' The ministry reiterated its belief that restoration of a balance between knowledge, wisdom, and compassion is essential to turn Japan's educational system around. The white paper says the schools must recognize individual children's talents and differences. Reforming a system is never easy, but the ministry has taken important first steps.

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