The number of bullying cases reported in schools across Japan has risen sharply after officials broadened the term's definition following a series of student suicides linked to bullying, the Education Ministry said Thursday.

A total of 124,898 cases of bullying were reported at elementary, junior high and high schools in the year ending in March 2007, up from 20,143 cases a year earlier, the ministry said.

A ministry official attributed the sharp rise to the wider definition of bullying and to the inclusion of private and national government-run schools in the total. Previous surveys only included schools run by local governments.

The ministry dropped words such as "repeated" and "one-sided" in its definition of bullying for the latest survey.

It found that six students — five in junior high school and one in high school — killed themselves in incidents that were linked to bullying in the most recent year, up from one suicide a year earlier, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, according to policy.

Most of the bullying cases at some 40,000 schools have been resolved, according to the ministry.

Bullying has long been a problem in Japanese schools, where students are under harsh competitive pressure, conformity is valued and those who do not fit in can be mercilessly picked on.

Authorities took countermeasures in the 1990s, allowing victims to attend alternative schools, lecturing students against bullying and easing curriculum requirements to reduce pressure.

But the issue came to light again following a series of student suicides linked to bullying.

The ministry will enhance counseling programs to respond to bullying, the official said.