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Suicide rise among Japan kids blamed on stifling schools amid calls for societal change

TOKYO -- Suicides by school students in Japan rose to 332 in the 2018 academic year, the third consecutive annual increase, according to the results of a survey into problematic behavior and long term absence at schools released by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology on Oct. 17.

Although the overall number of suicides nationally has fallen continuously for nine years, suicide cases among children have seen an upward trend. The Mainichi Shimbun spoke to experts about why the situation hasn't been reversed, and went to see what schools are doing to try and help.

Students at the municipal Shiki Second Junior High School are seen talking to one another during lessons based on the GRIP system, in Shiki, Saitama Prefecture, in July 2019. (Mainichi/Hitomi Maruyama)

"Suicides and avoiding school are signals from children who find even attending school painful," said Shiko Ishii, 37, the editor-in-chief of the Futoko Shimbun, or school absence newspaper in English. Ishii himself was once a long-term absentee from school.

According to the latest survey results, in the 2018 academic year there were five suicides by elementary school students, 100 at junior high school level and 227 among high school students. The total for high school students has risen by 67 over the previous academic year.

Results relating to school absences showed there were 164,528 students at elementary or junior high school who were not attending school, up from 144,031 in the prior school year. High school absenteeism also rose, with 52,723 students not attending in the 2018 academic year compared with 49,643 in the 2017 period. The results represent an upward trend taking place over several years.

Among the factors that have been singled out as behind the rise is an allegedly stifling atmosphere at schools that has become increasingly widespread due to measures to "strengthen management."

Ishii said he recently spoke to an absentee student in her third year at junior high school who told him that invisible pressure is spreading at school. A teacher at a "free school," a kind of alternative school for students who aren't attending regular education classes, also told him that schools are becoming more surveillance oriented.

Schools often implement rules such as standing up straight and not forgetting to bring necessary items such as textbooks as class-wide standards of behavior. Some mandate that school lunchtimes are silent, forbidding conversation. It appears schools are focusing on academic improvement while conscious of the expectations from children's guardians.

Ishii said, "There are of course many options, including free schools and home schooling. It's imperative that we set up an education system that makes it easier to make those choices."

But getting a full grasp of the issues behind suicide is difficult. The latest survey results also include information on the circumstances around individual suicides, based on guardians' responses to questions from schools. But 194 people's circumstances were attributed to "unknown" reasons, the most frequent response given.

An official of the education ministry who was involved in the survey said, "There are also cases where the students are reported to have been totally fine just the day before. We need to look thoroughly for causes across society and analyze them. A framework for these efforts is necessary, but up to now there hasn't been one."

Takuya Saito, a specially appointed professor in child and adolescent psychiatry at Hokkaido University Hospital, said that changes in hormonal balances during adolescence make young people more likely to engage in impulsive behavior. The brain's frontal lobe, which represses abrupt inclinations, is not fully developed at that point. As a result, Saito pointed out that young people have higher risks of resorting to acts related to suicide, such as becoming negative toward life.

On ways to improve the situation, he said, "There are multiple factors behind suicide. When it comes to thinking about how to prevent people taking their own lives, we shouldn't be focusing on specific instances such as self-harm, or people verbalizing that they want to die. Instead we as a whole society should consider how to reduce children's negative experiences at home and school."

Amendments to the Basic Act on Suicide Prevention, which came into force in 2016, included sections that require schools to make efforts to provide some form of education on suicide prevention, leaving schools to go through trial and error attempts at providing effective schemes.

Two junior high schools in the city of Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, western Japan, have begun trialing a suicide prevention program from this academic year called "GRIP," which was developed by professor Kenji Kawano at Ritsumeikan University. The impetus to implement the scheme came in December 2017, when a second-year student at a municipal junior high school took her life.

According to the city's board of education, GRIP advises students to listen to their feelings, think of ways to ward off bad vibes when they come, consider ways they can express how they feel to another person, and gets students to think of ways they can talk to their peers who they have learned are in distress. The program is taught in stages for a total of five hours.

A board of education official in charge of the program said, "The students get to understand one another's feelings, leading to an atmosphere where it's easier for them to confide in each other."

(Japanese original by Kohei Chiwaki and Yuka Narita, City News Department, and Atsuko Suzuki, Maebashi Bureau)

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