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Long troubled by school bullying, Japan now eyes zero tolera

Long troubled by school bullying, Japan now eyes zero tolerance
Japanese responded to record numbers of severe bullying cases last year, prompting a national outcry and calls for legislation. But a proposed bill doesn’t address schools' intense culture of conformity, critics say.

After months of relentless bullying at the hands of three classmates, 13-year-old Hiroki issued what must have seemed like an empty threat to his tormentors. "I'm going to die," he told them in a text message. "You should die," was their response.

In the month before his death, verbal taunts escalated into punching and kicking; his arms and legs were bound and his mouth taped. He was made to eat dead bees, shoplift, and even "rehearse" his own death. When his teachers were finally informed, they issued only a verbal warning.

Soon after, the teenager, identified in the media only by his first name, jumped to his death from the 14th floor of an apartment building in Otsu, western Japan, in October 2011.

His death prompted Japan's most serious attempt in decades to tackle the classroom culture of bullying – long seen as a rite of passage in a deeply competitive education system.

Statistics on school bullying vary, but new official data reveal a worrying trend. Regional legal affairs bureaus in Japan responded to a record 3,988 cases last year, an increase of more than 20 percent from 2011, the justice ministry said. The national police agency, meanwhile, said it had investigated 260 cases of school bullying in 2012, well up from the 113 cases in 2011.

Psychological and physical abuse is not confined to students. In a survey spanning 10 months beginning in April 2012, the education ministry found that 840 teachers had used corporal punishment against students – more than double the number of cases recorded in the preceding 12 months. The problem was highlighted late last year when a 17-year-old boy in Osaka killed himself after being routinely beaten by his high school basketball coach.

Amid a national outcry over several high-profile bullying cases, at least two of which led to suicides, the government introduced a bill earlier this year that promises zero tolerance for bullying among students, and physical punishments meted out by teachers.

The bill, which will be voted on by the end of June, requires teachers and parents to notify school authorities of bullying cases, to offer victims and perpetrators guidance, and to involve the police if alleged crimes have been committed.

The legislation – part of an overhaul of education ordered by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – also calls for an outside third party to deal with cases when a child's life or safety is at risk, and for teachers to make more use of their power to suspend bullies.

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