KIYOTERU Okouchi, 13, had given up on anyone helping him cope with bullies when his body was found hanging from a tree in his backyard on November 27. Today, Kiyoteru has the attention of his nation. The Japanese Cabinet held an emergency meeting last Tuesday to discuss the suicide, which has been blamed on bullying. A few days earlier, scheduled programmes on the nation's biggest networks were scrapped to make way for special broadcasts looking for a solution to the bullying crisis which has dogged Japan for years. Newspapers were peppered with reports on the death and the media went into a anguished frenzy when an emotional suicide note which pointed the finger squarely at bullies surfaced. But, while the Cabinet can influence millions of Japanese, nobody can find a way to stop pint-sized bullies pushing children as young as 11 to suicide. As the Cabinet met, the body of a second boy - again just 13 - was found hanging at the end of a rope. It appeared bullying had driven another teenager to suicide. The two went to junior high schools just a few kilometres apart. The next day the body of a 15-year-old boy who had hanged himself was also discovered, leaving Japan shell-shocked and wondering how to stop the losses. Then on Thursday a 14-year-old in Saitama prefecture became the fourth bullying-related suicide in three weeks. And yesterday police were studying the death of a 15-year-old who jumped in front of a commuter train, but were uncertain whether there was a link to bullying. Kiyoteru Okouchi's last words, written in his school exercise book, jolted this normally unmoved nation into action. But Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's efforts to eradicate bullying, called ijime, seemed a world away from the reality of further deaths. Schoolyard bullies had extorted about 1.1 million yen (HK$82,000) from Kiyoteru. The boy was subjected to bouts of torture by a group of about 10 children. He was beaten and had his head held under water. He was forced to dye his hair, bark like a dog outside a supermarket and bring tea and lunch for the group. 'I will not exist on this earth so no more money will disappear,' he wrote to his family in his final letter. 'The cost of food will be reduced by one person. Mother, you can relax and not have to make my lunch. 'I loathed everything on this earth. The reason I did not die earlier was because the whole family was kind to me.' He thanked his father for a trip to Australia a few weeks before his death and wished his grandmother a long life. Then, after pages of heartfelt writing which brought tears to Japanese commuters as they read them on their way to work, Kiyoteru ended his note with a plea to his parents not to accuse his attackers. 'It is me who is to be blamed for giving the money at their request,' he said. As the victim blamed himself, the Japanese Government and community galvanised themselves to do something about the crisis. But Japan has a long way to go before there can be an impact on child suicide, caused by bullying or not. Officially, no students this year have committed suicide because of bullying. In fact, official figures show no students this decade have committed killing themselves for that reason. Unofficially, detailed suicide notes such as the one left by Kiyoteru and testimony by the friends of dead teenagers show the number attributable to bullying is at least 12 this year. WITH the surge in suicides following the outcry over Kiyoteru's death, authorities here are wondering how many copy-cats might follow. About 180 children between the ages of 11 and 16 have killed themselves this year compared to 131 last year. Suicide and bullying are etched on the Japanese psyche. Since samurai times, suicide has been seen as a glorious way to die. And bullying has always been accepted as over-burdened youngsters letting off steam. However, recently, the motives for bullying appear to have become more sinister, with sweet-looking thugs as young as 11 turning into something expected in the nightmarish schools of New York. An Education Ministry survey released last week showed reported cases of bullying in the 1993 school year had dropped 1,660 to 21,598. But teachers conceded figures hide the true number of incidents because of the increasing cases involving less visible demands for cash. Figures on overall violence at school were released and showed a level never before seen in Japan. The figures prompted a special meeting of the Education Ministry - the first of its kind in eight years - to focus on Kiyoteru's case. The ministry hastily threw together new guidelines to clamp down on bullying and violence, and to press teachers to beware of the problem. As the suicides continued, the ministry ordered a first-ever meeting of school board heads from all of Japan's 47 prefectures yesterday. The officials had it hammered into them that a society-wide change was needed and schools had to be a key part. Prime Minister Murayama expressed 'great concern' for teen suicides. He said the Cabinet would continue meeting on the issue until solutions were found. But, no matter how much authorities here talk or act, the immediate suicides of two more teenagers indicate the body count will continue for a long time to come. Stopping bullying faces several hurdles. Japanese boys are notorious for not reporting maltreatment by their peers. Aside from their silence to school authorities and parents, many boys refuse even to complain to their closest friends. The principal at Kiyoteru's school, Mr Mamoru Mamiya, called his students together and expressed astonishment at the boy's silence through the months of bullying. 'Wasn't there anybody at this school to whom Okouchi could speak frankly and pour out his woes?' Mr Mamiya said. Getting school teachers and principals to recognise bullying is also a problem. Kiyoteru's father, Mr Yoshiharu Okouchi, criticised teachers for failing to notice or ignoring the ill-treatment of his son. 'My son appears to have been intent on committing suicide since March,' Mr Okouchi said. The pressure to perform and is blamed for much of the bullying is not going to disappear. The media's role in the latest suicides should also be studied. Although domestic reporting appears to have been on the whole responsible, the fact that the first suicide gained so much attention might have influenced the later actions of the other students. In many countries suicides are not reported to avoid encouraging others looking for public attention by following the same course of action. But, whether the media reports on the crisis or ignores it, the root cause of the suicides - vicious and sustained bullying - is unlikely to be quelled before many more lonely, bullied bodies are found hanging.