ASIA : Teen-Age Suicides Shed Light on Brutal Bullying in Japan


“Grandmother, please live a long life. Father, thank you for the trip to Australia. Mother, thank you for the delicious meals. I wanted to live longer, but . . .”

With that, Kiyoteru Okouchi slipped a rope around his neck and hanged himself from a back-yard tree.

He was all of 13.

His suicide last month rocked Japan and set off a public uproar over the phenomenon that caused him to take his own life: the dark, increasingly brutal practice of youth bullying.


In his poignant suicide letter, Okouchi described three years of torment at the hands of four classmates. All told, they extorted more than $10,000 from him, most of which he stole from his parents; they beat him, dunked his head in a nearby river and disdainfully called him “No. 1 Errand Boy.”

On the day that Okouchi could not scrape up the $400 they demanded, he decided to die. Until his suicide, he never divulged his secret, even when his worried father pointedly asked him if he was being bullied and taking money.

And in the three weeks since the shocking case came to light, at least three other teen-age victims of bullying have killed themselves by hanging.

Okouchi’s school in Aichi prefecture in western Japan has been deluged with furious phone calls and letters, blaming teachers for not detecting or stopping the problem. In a media blitz, the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading newspapers, ran 195 articles or letters to the editor on school bullying in December alone.

The issue has reached Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who recently urged his ministers to tackle the problem until it was “thoroughly eliminated.” The Education Ministry, calling an emergency meeting of all prefectural school chiefs for the first time ever, is proposing a $4-million counseling program.

Bullying and youth suicides, of course, occur in every country.

And, at least officially in Japan, the problem is declining.

School suicides have actually decreased to one-third the levels of the peak year of 1979--with 139 recorded in 1993. Incidents of bullying showed a slight increase only in high schools, with a decline in elementary schools and little change in middle schools, according to government figures.


But what seems to have struck a public nerve in Okouchi’s case was his heart-rending suicide letter, the bullies’ brazen demands for cash and their lack of remorse. When made to apologize to Okouchi’s parents, some of the bullies blurted out that they had enjoyed tormenting the boy.

Others say that, even if the number of incidents is dropping, their viciousness is escalating.

In one high school in Tokyo’s neighboring prefecture of Saitama, bullies first threw eggs at one boy, then put a bucket over his head; they knifed his gym clothes and finally broke into his dormitory, slashed his chair and splashed urine throughout his room.

“The current bullying is a violent game leading to death,” said Mamoru Tsuchiya, a Kyoto psychiatrist who wrote a book about the bullying of his daughter.

In a national case of soul-searching, the Japanese are groping for clues about why their children have outbursts of such dark impulses. Common reasons cited are too much educational competition, too little play, weakening ties between young and old, and a breakdown of family and community.

But psychologist Masao Miyamoto said the problem is not limited to children. Unlike other countries, where most children eventually outgrow bullying, it remains an accepted practice among adults here as a way to “force the logic of the group on others” by picking on those who stand out, he said.


Many here seem to believe that the problem of bullying can’t be solved without tackling broader social practices. And with Japan showing little sign of relaxing academic competition, changing group values or returning to the small communities of the past, some worry that the problem will be difficult to stamp out.

In the end, Kiyoteru Okouchi said he had lost the energy to persevere. “There were so many things I still wanted to do,” he wrote. “If it weren’t for this, I think I could have lived happily forever.”