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Editorial: Ruling on causal relationship between bullying, suicide a major step forward

Bullying threatens human lives, and bullies should shoulder a grave responsibility to pay for their actions. That was the strong message sent by the Otsu District Court in western Japan in its Feb. 19 ruling.

The court found a clear causal relationship between the suicide of a second-year male student at a junior high school in the Shiga Prefecture city of Otsu in 2011 and violent bullying by two former classmates.

A third-party committee set up by the city had already acknowledged that the bullying led to the suicide and paid settlement money to the bereaved family. However, the former classmates denied the connection saying what they had engaged in was "an extension of play," prompting the victim's family to take the case to court.

According to the ruling, the youngsters were initially friends. But their relationship deteriorated into one between bullies and victim, and violence against the male student escalated. In the process, the boy gradually came to feel isolated and powerless.

"It is generally predictable that after repeated violence the victim would fall into a state of mind that he could not escape from his former classmates and kill himself," read the Otsu court ruling.

Usually, the causal relationship between bullying and a victim's death is not frequently acknowledged because it is difficult to determine the level of connection or the influence of other factors.

In the Otsu case, however, many records, including the report of the municipal third-party panel and reports of a local family court on the probation of the two former classmates, were submitted to and examined by the court. Based on the facts, the district court made a landmark judgment that recognized the seriousness of what can be caused by bullying.

The bereaved families of alleged bullying victims have no way of knowing what happened to their children at school. In addition, schools and boards of education, hoping to settle cases quickly, tend to be reluctant to provide families with documents. That was the case with the Otsu Municipal Government, but the city changed its position after it faced huge societal pressure.

The amount of damages approved by the court was about 37.5 million yen including the victim's estimated lost future income and consolation money -- almost the exact amount the plaintiff had sought. Whether the defendants in their 20s can pay such a large sum, or if the figure is appropriate when compared with damages in other bullying cases, are expected to spark public discussion.

The Otsu case prompted a police investigation, and led to the introduction in 2013 of a bullying prevention act. The case showed the importance of full cooperation from schools and boards of education in figuring out the problems and preventing recurrences.

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