A 13 year-old boy in Iwate prefecture ended his life in the summer of 2015. In the notebook he was exchanging with his teacher, he wrote that he was frequently bullied in school. In one entry he indicated his suicide plan, writing, "I know where I'm going to die." It didn't alarm the teacher enough to notify the boy's parents. Instead she replied, "Let's have fun at school training starting tomorrow." His name was Ryo Muramatsu.
The boy's suicide became headline news. Everyone was shocked. How could the teacher ignore the boy's cry for help? But what's more shocking is that this kind of incident happens often in Japan.
Ijime, bullying, is a serious social problem. According to an education ministry survey, the total number of bullying incidents from elementary, junior high and high schools stood at 188,057 for the year, a 2,254 increase from the previous year.
Why is ijime so prevalent in Japan today?
Experts struggle to explain the cause of this phenomenon. Some argue that schools are the problem, while others blame the families. But such arguments do not help to illuminate the fundamental issue. This is a problem of our society, and each one of us is responsible for it. To reduce the cases of ijime and related suicides, we must discuss the root cause that no one wants to talk about: Japanese society is harsh on those who do not "fit into the norm."
Japan is a society where being a part of a group in harmony is highly valued. It's a culture that honors similarities over differences, conformity over individualism. Every society has such pressures to conform, but in Japan it is very intense. If you don't fit in, you are made to feel isolated or totally removed from the group.
A good example of this is in special education. A child with a disability attends a special school. Inclusion classrooms, common in other countries, don't exist here. These children get separated from their peers and thus the mainstream of society from their childhood.
However, the practice is not limited to children with disabilities. Children who are "different" may feel isolated in school. They may be a sexual minority, or multiracial. Or they may live in poverty. Such children are easy targets for ijime.
My brother had difficulty fitting in as a child. Being a new kid in school (we moved often), he began to be bullied in middle school. I was in an elementary school at that time, but it was obvious what was happening to him; he would come home from school beaten and frazzled or with his stuff stolen. But his teacher didn't believe him when he confided in her. She said that the boy bullying my brother was a 'good student,' meaning that he had good grades. He was a popular child in school, unlike my brother who was an outcast. For these reasons she dismissed him.
When a child comes to us and reports being bullied or indicates suicidal thoughts in any way, we must take it seriously. It is a sign that they're crying out for help. This is not the time to try to fix the problem or judge whose fault it is. Our natural tendency is to give children advice on how to go to school or how to avoid ijime, but that's not what they're looking for. They want someone to listen to them with empathy.
To reduce the number of incidents of ijime, we as adults must face the problems of our society. If we want our children to respect their differences and to be kind to those who are vulnerable, we must project that. What's happening to our children is a microcosm of our society.
Lastly, I'd like to say to the children who are experiencing ijime:
If you are bullied in school, know that it's not your fault, even though people around you have made you feel like it is. No one deserves to be bullied. People may tell you that if you change in some way, bullying may stop. It's not you who has to change. It's those who are bullying you. You're fine just the way you are.
Know that you're not alone. Talk to someone you can trust. If you don't have anyone you can talk to, there is a number you can call. You can talk to a trained person without revealing your identity. Asking for help is a sign of courage, not weakness.
If you think that the best way to take revenge is to take your own life, think again. Your death will cause pain only to those who love you. It's your survival, not your death that will haunt those who are making your life miserable. Stay alive.
It may seem as though you're in a dark tunnel right now. But don't lose hope. Feelings are never final. You pain will not last forever. No matter how dark the tunnel is, at the end there is always a light.
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This post first appeared on HuffPost Japan.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources and help hotlines.