NAGOYA, Japan -- The boy was a psychological prisoner of war held captive by his own classmates. And it happened in a country considered so safe that 6-year-olds routinely take the subway to school alone.
The 15-year-old victim, repeatedly tortured with burning cigarettes and beaten so badly he was hospitalized twice, wound up forking over half a million dollars to his teenage tormentors to keep them at bay.
The bullies ultimately planned to kill the boy and make it look like a suicide, a plot foiled not by police but by the sympathetic son of a mafia chief.
It is a saga that has placed a spotlight on schoolyard bullying in Japan. And it has prompted public apologies and soul-searching by national and local police, schools and public welfare agencies, who knew about the boy's suffering but did nothing.
Although the size of the payoff grabbed headlines, police, social scientists and children themselves say extortion routinely accompanies bullying in Japanese schoolyards. And the children are easy prey in this cash-oriented nation where automated teller machines dispense up to $30,000 at a shot.
Moreover, the case shows the emergence of a new strain of bullying that goes well beyond the systematized classroom ostracism that is commonplace in Japan. In a society that values group conformity perhaps above all else, even teachers often go along with the abuse, with a kind of tacit acceptance that kids are bullied because of their own weakness.
These super-bullies virtually enslave their targets while demanding payoffs, said Kojiro Imazu, an educational sociology professor at Nagoya University. In this case, they even tried to extort money from the victim while he was hospitalized with injuries they had inflicted. That move would prove to be their downfall.
Ask Motohiko's classmates outside Ogidai Middle School in central Japan what he's like and two girls pipe up, "He's chubby." His terror began in June, on a school excursion to Nagano. The lead bully, Yosuke, blamed Motohiko for a juice stain on his hat and demanded that he hand over $50, which he did.
It wasn't long, however, before the bullies demanded more. Motohiko exhausted his own savings and then began dipping into his mother's account. She became suspicious that he was being extorted after a bank clerk alerted her that her son had withdrawn $5,000.
Motohiko's father had died three years earlier, leaving his mother the beneficiary of a $300,000 life insurance policy.
Motohiko insisted to his mother that he had squandered the cash himself. In early July, at a meeting his mother arranged with teachers, he still refused to 'fess up. "He couldn't tell the truth because he was so scared of being attacked," said family attorney Shoichi Onishi.
The mother took her son to the police. She claims that Motohiko ultimately gave police the names of three bullies but said only that he had lent them money. Onishi said the police did nothing, telling Motohiko's mother that lending money wasn't a crime. But the police turned the names of the boys over to the school, he said.
"The police were so lazy," Onishi said.
For their part, police say no names were given and that their hands were tied because the boy didn't tell the truth. "He . . . didn't look scared," said police official Tamiya Yoshimi.
The bullies accused Motohiko of tattling, making sure he knew they were watching his every move, Onishi said. …