The young girl was left hanging from the tree. Everyone knew who she was but no one would step forward to cut the rope. She had few friends in life and fewer friends in death.
The suicide of this lonely and taunted 8th grade girl shocked a nation and exposed an epidemic of students being bullied in Japanese schools. The Education Minister received an anonymous letter from a schoolboy saying bullies were making his life a misery and he was going to kill himself. The minister’s mailbox quickly filled with similar letters, each written by troubled young people complaining about the devastating effects of bullying. In fact, a survey conducted on about 6,400 high school students nationwide showed that 56% of males and 63% of females were victims of school bullying. More disconcerting is the claim by numerous parents that schools and government officials cover up cases to keep the statistics low.
A few days after receiving the first letter, the minister of education would be informed that a 17-year-old girl jumped four floors at her school; a 12-year-old girl, teased for being small, jumped from the eight floor of her apartment building; a 14-year-old boy being forced to pay 20,000 yen to a bully hanged himself; and the following day another 14-year-old boy hanged himself because his classmates would not stop pulling down his pants.
A dishonest education bureaucrat responded to public outcry by stating that suicide by bullying is “becoming less frequent.” He proudly boasted how suicide hotlines and public service announcements by celebrities are starting to prevent further suicides by young victims. But trying to reason how many lives are being saved is a questionable strategy. The headline of today’s The Asahi Shimbun (Japan’s leading national newspaper) reads, “Record Student Suicides in 2008.”
According to the column, a record 972 students, from elementary school age through university level, took their lives in 2008. This is the highest number since the government began compiling data in 1978. The figure was an increase of 99 over the previous year. And what did the data support? Children victimized by bullies often committed suicide.
It’s 3 AM and I am standing outside my hotel in Tokyo. The massive Shinagawa Train Station is directly across the street. I cannot sleep because my body clock tells me it is early afternoon in New York. I walk across the street and enter the train station. The warmth of the bright neon lights probably attracts the reptilian part of my brain, and I am hoping that a coffee shop may be open. The cavernous station is quiet. Earlier in the day, when tens of thousands of commuters filled the many halls and platforms, the station resembled a human beehive and testified to the efficiency of the Japanese public transportation system. Now only a few maintenance workers could be found scattered around the station, and all the coffee shops were closed. I would be meeting with the minister of education in a few hours but could not stop thinking about all the children who committed suicide because they could no longer face bullies.
Why do bullies exert so much power over children? The obvious answer is fear but this insidious problem has grown much more complex in the Internet Age. The classic bully of yesteryear threatened bodily harm if his or her demands were not met, but today’s bully need not display physical prowess or be surrounded by a group of equally pernicious thugs. Cyberspace has found room for cyberbullies and many children are victimized in the once safe environment of home. Many Japanese students who committed suicide complained that they could no longer live with the harassment posted on popular websites. One teenage girl curled herself on a railroad track and ended her life under the steel wheels of an express train. She wrote a suicide letter complaining about all the people who joined a discussion board about her. She could not believe that so many people “hated her.”
I continue my walk and stop at an overpass. Below me sets of parallel rails head north and south from Tokyo. I watch a high speed train head north and think about the young girl laying in a fetal position on the tracks. She could not withdraw from the pressures to conform to a homogenous society, so she withdrew from the world.
The pressures to perform well in school and in the workplace are a reality of life in Japan, and few options are available to students and young adults lacking the social and emotional skills necessary to survive in such a competitive arena. I spoke with a social worker and college professor assigned to the Tokyo school district, and she informed me that mental health services are not readily available to troubled young people. If a young person seeks mental health support, they are usually referred to a mental institution. In a country in which success and appearance are the priority of most families, a visit to a mental institution is not a viable or convenient option. Anti-depressants are not easily available or often prescribed, and mental health problems are viewed as a shameful weakness.
“So what happens to young people who need help?” I asked.
The college professor informed me that many young people enter a state of self-imposed exile called “hikikomori.” They retreat from school and society and stay inside their homes.
“Over 1 million young people – how do you say ‘engage’? – in hikikomori,” the professor added.
But it is hard for young people to stay idle for long – even if they are confined to the relative safety of a bedroom. Japan is one of the world’s most wired countries and has a ratio of 1.5 mobile phones for every person. The Internet and instant messaging provide immediate electronic communication, and, in the case of fragile young people, a virtual realm to interact with nefarious strangers. Young people seeking the solace of a friend are often referred to Internet sites that provide detailed advice concerning efficient ways to commit suicide. Sometimes suffering teenagers and adults form suicide pacts over the Internet. They only leave the safety of hikikomori to meet and to kill themselves.
I cross the train track overpass and walk down a flight of stairs. The platform is bathed in an eerie hue of blue light. I first assume the low intensity lighting is a cost saving measure, but later learn that Japanese railway operators are installing special blue lights above station platforms to reduce suicides. Blue light is supposed to have a calming effect on people and, according to Shinji Hira, a psychology professor at Fukuyama University, “blue lights could make people pause and reflect.” Shining blue light on people suffering from the blues would be comical if it was not being used as a practical solution to deal with suicide – particularly teenage suicide. How about providing mental health services to young people before they stop to “pause and reflect” on a train platform? How about initiating tough anti-bullying laws in Japanese schools? Many of the young people who committed suicide complained about the futility of dealing with bullies, and few bullies are expelled or suspended from school.
It’s now almost 4 AM and I start to walk back to my hotel. Business people are starting to enter the train station and another day will soon dawn. My thoughts return to the girl left hanging from a tree. The hangman’s noose was designed to provide a more humane execution by snapping the neck quickly. It is a very intricate knot that requires a series of loops and ties not easily learned or mastered by the young. The girl who killed herself because she could no longer face the harassment of bullies most certainly did not know how to make a hangman’s noose. She died a slow and painful death by suffocation.
Bullies are better at tying the knots that strangle our children than untying or cutting the ropes they weave. That is why no one stepped forward to cut the young girl’s rope.
I return to my room and once again glance at the news headline reporting the record number of student suicides in 2008. The year 2008 was the Year of the Rat, a most appropriate animal for bullies that kill.