forty schools in Japan have been put on suicide watch and others on high alert this month after the deaths of headteachers and pupils caused by exam pressure and bullying.
Four heads and scores of pupils have taken their own lives because of bullying and an exam scandal, in which schools were found to be ditching compulsory lessons in order to cram for exams.
The education ministry announced that it had received a letter from an anonymous teenager intent on suicide "If the bullying did not stop". It has been followed by dozens of similar letters and emails to Bunmei Ibuki, Japan's education minister. The ministry pleaded with the correspondents to reconsider their actions and warned parents and teachers to be wary.
Unfortunately, the letter seemed to fuel a mass hysteria which resulted in the number of child suicides rocketing. Headteachers at two schools where pupils had killed themselves because of bullying followed suit because they had failed to stem the problem. Last month two heads killed themselves when their schools were exposed as one of the many thousands that had been pretending to teach some compulsory subjects but in fact skipped them to focus on cramming for the important university entrance exams.
On an average day, 80 Japanese people take their own lives. Last year a total of 608 children killed themselves. But bullying, according to the education ministry, provoked only a fraction of their deaths. However, a recent survey reported that 21 per cent of students said they had been abused or threatened. Now journalists and commentators are calling on the politicians to do something.
The reasons for the phenomenon appears complex. Many are blaming the hysteria whipped up by the letters for copycat suicides.
KEEPING A CLOSE EYE
Japanese parents are hiring private eyes to see if their children are the victims of playground bullying.
Parents are paying private investigators up to pound;1,000 a week to follow their children. Investigators listen into conversations via micro-chips in pupils' bags and clothing and step in to interview pupils and parents if they hear any evidence of harassment.