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Suicide case highlights stresses in Japan's Self-Defense Forces

Parents of a soldier say they pressed charges to prevent future abuses. The suicide rate has risen as the forces' role has expanded.

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Idealistic and interested in promoting humanitarian assistance abroad, Tomohisa Irino joined Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in 2004. But just one year later, the 21-year-old petty officer committed suicide.

In the notebook he left behind, along with his expressions of appreciation for his family and friends, Irino scribbled "I will never forgive you," and cursed Osamu Sato, his superior at the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF).

According to the lawyers of his parents, who filed suit in 2006 against the government and Mr. Sato, Sato would shoot at him and other young officers with a BB gun on their destroyer. He is also said to have extorted money from Irino. But the SDF denied that the bullying was linked to the suicide, although they were aware that Sato was convicted of extortion and assault against other officers in 2005.

"The SDF was well aware of the reality of bullying, but they neglected the problem irresponsibly," says Hisashi Okada, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, whose case was heard in February. "What we are doing is to shed light on a structural defect in the SDF."

Japan's military has been rocked by a series of scandals in recent years. And the need for reform and greater discipline is growing, say observers across the political spectrum, as the role of the SDF, which employs about 240,000 military personnel and has an annual budget of nearly $50 billion, undergoes a dramatic shift.

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