Girl's death in Japan prompts probe of alleged bullying

TOKYO — A Japanese city will reinvestigate alleged bullying that was denied by education officials two years ago after a 14-year-old girl was found dead in a neighborhood park.

Saaya Hirose, an eighth grader, disappeared from her home in Asahikawa on the main northern island of Hokkaido in February. Authorities said she was found dead in the park and there was no sign of a crime.

The Weekly Bunshun magazine, citing police autopsy results, said she likely died of hypothermia soon after going missing.

Her death and a statement by her mother that she had been bullied prompted Asahikawa Mayor Masahito Nishikawa to instruct education authorities to reinvestigate the case.

On Thursday, the city’s board of education said a panel including a lawyer, psychiatrist, social worker and scholar will begin the investigation later this month.

Bullying is a persistent and growing problem at Japanese schools, which are often criticized for indifference to children persecuted by their peers.

Last year, a record 612,000 bullying cases were reported at elementary, junior high and high schools, according to the education ministry. It said there were 479 suicides among students, a new record partly attributed to financial and psychological difficulties during the pandemic. Six were specifically linked to bullying.

In Japan’s highly competitive but conformist society, school bullying often involves long-term harassment by a group of students of someone who may be seen as weak or different. Children with outstanding talent, physical handicaps or a foreign upbringing can also be targeted.

Saaya’s alleged bullying started in the spring of 2019 soon after she entered a city-run junior high school in Asahikawa city, officials said.

The case initially surfaced in 2019 when a number of classmates forcibly took nude photographs of her and posted them on social media, according to the Weekly Bunshun magazine. She begged them to stop and tried to persuade them by jumping into a river to kill herself, it said.

She was rescued and the incident led to an internal investigation by the school and city education authorities. They concluded that there was no bullying, board of education official Hiroki Tsujinami said. Results of that investigation have not been released.

Saaya transferred to another school in the city, but became reclusive and developed suicidal thoughts, according to the magazine.

In late April, Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda called for a full investigation of her death.

Saaya’s family said in a statement last month that they hope the new investigation will reveal the truth and that there can be a world without bullying.

Bullying often goes unnoticed at Japanese schools, where teachers typically handle classes of about 40 students and are busy with afterschool activities and other work. Bullying is considered an embarrassment for schools.

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