Tokyo Report

Japan’s School Bullying Escalates With Spike in Youth Suicide

As the Education Ministry struggles to halt school bullying, some look to artificial intelligence to highlight at risk students.

Japan’s School Bullying Escalates With Spike in Youth Suicide
Credit: Pixabay

School should be a place of safety, but in Japan schools are becoming a hotspot for bullying-related suicides. In an effort to halt school bullying, an anti-bullying law was passed in 2013 requiring all schools to provide bullying prevention guidelines based on character education and early detection measures. However, cases of juvenile suicide have continued to rise, leading many to question the law’s effectiveness.

Education Ministry data compiled 414,378 cases of school bullying in fiscal year 2017. Of the 250 students who committed suicide that year, only 10 were determined to have been bullied, with other causes were connected to family issues and stress. While the number of incidents jumped by 28.2 percent in 2017 compared to the year before, the Education Ministry sees the data as a positive indicator that teachers are being more alert to bullying, which historically went unreported. The government also expanded the criteria for mandatory reporting to include cases of teasing, internet bullying, and student fights in 2016.

A campaign to revisit the anti-bullying law’s effectiveness was triggered by a landmark court ruling in Otsu, south-central Japan, last week, which ordered two male classmates to pay compensation to the victim’s bereaved family. The high-profile case initially began in 2011 when a 13-year old boy jumped to his death from the rooftop of his apartment building.

The Otsu Education Board’s response was heavily criticized for neglecting to fully examine the link between the boy’s suicide and bullying. An independent panel requested by the family confirmed a causal link through a student questionnaire, which disclosed at least 26 incidents of bullying. Among other incidents, the boy was forced to eat a dead bee, was nearly strangled, had his face scribbled on, textbooks torn, and was repeatedly told to go die.

The judge ruled that the boy’s relationship with his peers had deteriorated, leading him to be socially shunned, which triggered suicidal thoughts. The ruling set a new precedent by lowering the hurdles of establishing proof for plaintiffs and awarding damages from bullying — making even juvenile perpetrators legally liable. The judgment also determined that, regardless of whether the bully(s) could foresee suicide or not, a causal relationship would be recognized.

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Seven years after the boy’s death, Otsu municipality is slowly drawing lessons from the case and putting into practice effective anti-bullying prevention measures. Most recently, schools in the area have been required to report bullying within 24 hours. The city has also created a bullying countermeasure promotion office and has placed specialized department members at each school.

The Otsu Education Board is also looking to artificial intelligence (AI) to predict potentially fatal cases of bullying. In a trial run, 9,000 cases of bullying submitted from schools were analyzed by AI for severe warning signs. AI is being praised for being able to rapidly process huge amounts of data, which can predict bullying incidents that are likely to become serious and lead to an early response. AI also proves advantageous in avoiding increasing teachers’ workload. Instead of relying solely on teachers and their experience, the initiative hopes to tackle bullying with cutting-edge technology and social media trends. The new AI system is expected to come into effect in April.

The main pillars behind the existing anti-bullying law aims to bolster information sharing between teachers and to recognize nonattendance and student abnormalities. The clause stipulates that if a pattern emerges teachers must start an investigation immediately and clarify all the facts.

Bipartisan parliamentarians are in favor of strengthening the anti-bullying law. But they have raised issue with the need to teach staff to read into related bullying laws and guidelines. The law, according to detractors, effectively imposes a duty on teachers to have expert knowledge on the matter. Some Diet members instead support an amendment plan encouraging disciplinary action for teachers who neglect or conceal suspected bullying.