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Death toll mounts in the 'forest of doom'

Every February brings news of a dismal woodland crop when police release the figures on the number of deaths in "Suicide Forest" at the base of Mount Fuji. More professionals, including teachers, were among the 78 names reeled off last year. The Japan Teachers' Union claims they were victims of the recent massive changes in the country's education system.

A record 102 teachers (70 male, 32 female) took their own lives in 2001, accounting for almost 0.5 per cent of Japan's total. Suicide now ranks as the sixth leading cause of death among Japanese people, with 32,143 suicides recorded in 2002, up from 15,000-25,000 in the 10 years before 1997. For people in their 20s and 30s in Japan, it is now the leading cause of death.

Some pundits blame Japan's prolonged recession, which took a hold in the early 1990s. For educators, the increase in teacher suicides is linked to added pressures of work caused by the government's overhaul of the curriculum and the huge rise of discipline problems within schools. The school week has been cut from six days to five, but this has actually increased teachers' workload.

"It is true that the number of teacher suicides has been gradually increasing," said Tamaki Terazawa of the Japan Teachers' Union. "It is no doubt linked to an enormous jump in the number of our members who suffer from stress-related mental illness. They made up nearly half of all teachers at the nation's state schools who took sick leave during last year."

Remarkably, the education ministry agrees with the union that teachers are now more likely to suffer stress at work, attributing this to "classrooms in disarray, truancy and increased government control over the workplace".

Measures introduced by the JTU to help vulnerable teachers include a web page that offers depression advice. The "depression check" involves 20 questions about the typical symptoms of the illness, with answers given a point score according to the degree of severity reported.

Those faced with high depression scores are advised to take leave immediately or seek medical treatment. It is advice that came too late for the three principals who killed themselves last year.

However, doubts have been raised about whether educators could even act on such advice. The head of Takasu elementary school in Hiroshima, Kazuhiro Keitoku, who killed himself in 2001 at the age of 56, was denied leave even though his doctor told his education board he needed a break. So strong is Japan's work ethic that sometimes the only way out is suicide. A glimpse into Mount Fuji's forest of doom would tell anybody that.

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