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Victims' voices going unheard in Japan school probes into bullying-induced suicides

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OTSU -- A system ensuring the inclusion of the voices of family members and others close to victims in suicide cases suspected to have been caused by bullying at school has not been spreading within investigative committees set up by schools and education boards across Japan.

    Of the 47 prefectures and 20 ordinance-designated cities nationwide, only four local governments have regulations allowing the victim's side to nominate members to investigative committees. A structure has been lacking to secure the trust of bereaved families and others as suicides triggered by bullying, as well as inappropriate measures by administrative bodies, have been continuing with no end.

    The Mainichi Shimbun conducted a survey ahead of Oct. 11, which will mark 10 years since a 2011 incident in which a second-year student at a municipal junior high school in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, took his own life at the age of 13. The questionnaire asked prefectural education boards as well as those in ordinance-designated cities how they handle cases of suicide or suicide attempts, and obtained responses from 66 local bodies.

    About 70%, or 45 local authorities, responded that their investigation committees consist of only "third party" members that have no stake in the case, such as lawyers and psychiatrists. Forty-seven bodies said that they disclose the names of committee members to the victim side.

    Meanwhile, education boards of only four local governments, namely Gunma and Miyazaki prefectures, as well as the cities of Osaka and Kobe, have rules allowing the victim side to nominate members to the investigative board. Eleven local governments, including Gifu Prefecture, answered that though there are no existing rules, they "will consider taking measures if there are requests from the victim side."

    Following the Otsu student suicide case, the municipal education board was criticized for not disclosing the facts even though multiple students answered in the school's survey that the victim "was being forced to practice killing himself." A bullying prevention law was enacted in 2013 in response to these series of issues. Although the law stipulates that investigation committees must be set up in the event of serious incidents including suicides, there are no provisions on methods to select committee members. As there have been numerous cases where distrust grows surrounding the content of the investigation and the way that information is disclosed, bereaved families are urging for a system where lawyers and others nominated by bereaved families can join the investigation.

    Yoshiyasu Watanabe, a lawyer who served as the vice chairperson of the independent committee for the Otsu case, said, "Creating a system enabling the participation of bereaved families, by listening to their requests and making opportunities where they can voice their opinions, will lead to earning trust."

    (Japanese original by Kengo Suga, Otsu Bureau)

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