Suicide case highlights stresses in Japan's Self-Defense Forces

Parents of a soldier say they pressed charges to prevent future abuses. The suicide rate has risen as the forces' role has expanded.

Idealistic and interested in promoting humanitarian assistance abroad, Tomohisa Irino joined Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in 2004. But just one year later, the 21-year-old petty officer committed suicide.

In the notebook he left behind, along with his expressions of appreciation for his family and friends, Irino scribbled "I will never forgive you," and cursed Osamu Sato, his superior at the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF).

According to the lawyers of his parents, who filed suit in 2006 against the government and Mr. Sato, Sato would shoot at him and other young officers with a BB gun on their destroyer. He is also said to have extorted money from Irino. But the SDF denied that the bullying was linked to the suicide, although they were aware that Sato was convicted of extortion and assault against other officers in 2005.

"The SDF was well aware of the reality of bullying, but they neglected the problem irresponsibly," says Hisashi Okada, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, whose case was heard in February. "What we are doing is to shed light on a structural defect in the SDF."

Japan's military has been rocked by a series of scandals in recent years. And the need for reform and greater discipline is growing, say observers across the political spectrum, as the role of the SDF, which employs about 240,000 military personnel and has an annual budget of nearly $50 billion, undergoes a dramatic shift.

In the postwar period, joining the SDF was considered a good path to obtaining skills and licensing helpful for future civilian employment. A defensive force because of Japan's war-renouncing Constitution, the SDF was more associated with efforts like disaster relief than with military operations. Soldiers even contribute snow sculptures at Sapporo's Snow Festival.

But after being criticized for contributing only financially during the 1991 Gulf War, Japan began to dispatch SDF troops abroad, mainly to UN peacekeeping operations. Its troops helped with reconstruction in Iraq, entering a war zone in 2004 for the first time since World War II. Last week, Japanese destroyers headed out to protect shipping off Somalia's shores.

Kantoku Teruya, a Social Democratic Party parliamentarian, says that the military's new overseas missions may have contributed to a spike in suicides. In the past 12 years, suicides among SDF members has risen sharply, from 61 in 1997 to around 100 in each of the past four years. Mr. Teruya says 16 of the 19,700 forces deployed to Iraq killed themselves, a rate more than three times as high as Japan's already high suicide rate of 26.1 per 100,000.

A Ministry of Defense spokesman says doctors monitor mental health before, during, and after overseas assignments. "It is difficult to identify the cause of each [suicide] case. We can't say with certainty that bullying or harassment could lead to some of the suicides," says the official.

The ministry has struggled to confront other problems. Negligence charges are expected to be filed soon against officers of the Atago, a destroyer involved in a deadly collision with a trawler a year ago. SDF members committed more than 800 crimes in 2007, including robbery, assault, drunk driving, and sex crimes, says Katsuhisa Miyake, who has written two books about the troubled force.

Last September, an incident in the MSDF shocked the nation. A young petty officer who was to be transferred to a submarine unit was forced to fight 15 colleagues before he left, and sustained a blow that killed him. An officer told his family the fighting was "intended to be a hanamuke [going-away gift]." In an editorial The Okinawa Times asked: "Are they dragging a vicious tradition from the Imperial Army?"

In 2007, Fukuoka High Court ordered the government to compensate the parents of another sailor who hanged himself in 1999. His parents argued their son was severely depressed, a result of his superior's repeated insults. The ruling could affect similar SDF cases.

Irino's parents say they want to hold all parties accountable. "There are probably many other SDF members who struggle with a problem similar to my son's," his mother said outside the court in Yokohama. "We don't want any more victims."

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