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Suicide also rises in land of rising sun
By J Sean Curtin

Japan has been stricken by an epidemic of suicides cutting across all social strata and age groups, according to recently released statistics for 2003. Every day nearly 100 people take their own lives, at a rate of almost one every 15 minutes. And the long economic slump is a factor. Despite recent signs of economic recovery, the good news hasn't yet touched the lives of those who leap off buildings, hurl themselves in front of trains, apparently in droves, or hang themselves.

"All that's left are endless bankruptcies, chronic unemployment, high suicide rates and a lot of despair," one retired rural official told Asia Times Online.

Since 2003, the Aokigahara woods at the base of Mount Fuji have been known as the "suicide forest" because 78 middle-aged men apparently committed suicide by hanging themselves from tree branches. Experts cite unemployment, bankruptcies and other economic problems as major reasons for the deaths.

Some of the dominant economic factors that have contributed to the current suicide crisis include large-scale bankruptcies, increased unemployment, a sluggish business climate, accumulated debts, lower incomes, inadequate bankruptcy laws, prolonged economic stagnation, an unregulated financial loan market and corporate restructuring. Ill-health, despair and other problems plague the nation of 127 million, the world's second-biggest economy.

The total number of Japanese suicides is roughly equal to that of the entire United States, a country that has more than twice Japan's population. To put the latest data in context, in today's Japan one is roughly five times as likely to die by one's own hand as to be killed in a traffic accident.

Some cultural factors exacerbate the problem: lack of religious prohibition against suicide, reluctance to discuss mental health and stress-related problems, a literary tradition that romanticizes suicide, a view of suicide as an honorable act, a way of taking responsibility for failure, among other issues. The breakdown of family and social networks and the increasing isolation of individuals contribute to the problem.

The figures for 2003 paint an exceedingly grim picture, showing that a record 34,427 Japanese men and women took their own lives last year. According to the latest statistics from the National Police Agency (NPA), the number of suicides has increased by 7.1%, or 2,284 more lives lost than in 2002. Many people believe the long recession is a key factor behind the rise.

Especially troubling is the steep increase in the number of people in their 30s taking their own lives. The death toll for this age bracket reached 4,603, an increase of 17%, translating into 668 more cases than in the previous year.

As in other countries, men are far more likely to take their own lives than women, and men account for a staggering 73% of all suicides in Japan. Suicide by the elderly, 33.5%, and by people with financial problems, 25.8%, account for the two largest non-gender groupings. There has also been an alarming surge in the number of children committing suicide.

Financially related suicides up
Japanese suicide rates have been high since 1998, when a surge in bankruptcies and unemployment generated a big upswing in people taking their lives for financial reasons. In the decade leading up to 1997, the number of people who killed themselves hovered in a relatively low range of between 15,000 and 25,000 a year. In 1998, suicide broke the 30,000 threshold and has remained high ever since.

The latest figures also reveal that there were 8,897 money-related suicides, a rise of 12.1% from the 2002 level, which translates into an additional 957 deaths and marks the first time the 8,000 barrier has been exceeded for this category.

The NPA statistics attributed 25.8% of all suicides to money problems. Of these, 5,043 cases were classified as being due to difficulty in paying debts, an increase of 900 or 21.7%. A further 1,321 cases, a rise of 153, were due to other financial difficulties, such as bankruptcies or poor business performance.

Suicide due to failure to gain employment totaled 183 people, up 18.1% from 2002. Although Japan's long recession appears to be finally ending, the financial turmoil and despair it has created shows little sign of abating.

Suicide destroying rural Japan
Like a virulent biblical plague, for the past seven years suicide has ravaged Japanese society, especially rural areas. Hiroshi Sakamoto, a retired local-government official and volunteer suicide councilor, bitterly blames the government for the current crisis. He told Asia Times Online, "Suicide has caused so much pain and damage to the less economically developed regions of Japan. Yet the government has done nothing. It feels like Tokyo just doesn't care about people living in small cities and towns. We simply don't count because we don't live in big cities. Regions like Hokkaido have been decimated by the recession.

"All that's left are endless bankruptcies, chronic unemployment, high suicide rates and a lot of despair."

Sakamoto added, "Almost everyone in rural Japan has lost someone to suicide." He said a close friend took his life last year. He owned a bar, and business had been bad for years since people had less money to spend. His debts mounted and his business, his life's work, began to fail. "He just could not take it, and took his life. Every week this kind of sad tale is repeated hundreds of times in Hokkaido and all over rural Japan," Sakamoto said.

Many people believe the government lacks the political will to tackle the socially sensitive issue, a situation that has allowed suicide rates to soar. The long economic downturn, changing socio-economic trends and various cultural factors combine to transform society, creating a less stable and more suicide-prone environment.

Youth suicide rising
The recent sharp increase in the number of child deaths is one of the most troubling developments. It seems that almost every week there are several tragic cases involving schoolchildren either taking their own lives or being murdered by a mother or father before the despairing parent commits suicide. The number of family murder-suicides is not detailed in the current NPA figures, but news and other reports indicate their frequency is growing.

The latest NPA data confirm that suicide by elementary- and middle-school students is a serious social problem. The suicide rate for this group rose by a massive 57.6%, representing a total of 93 innocent lives lost, 34 more than in 2002. Among high-school students there was also a sharp rise of 29.3%. In total, 225 young lives were lost in this category. There was also an increase in the number of college students killing themselves. The overall suicide rate among people aged 19 or younger rose by 22%.

Experts say that young people who commit suicide are greatly influenced by adults who take their own lives and the publicity surrounding the deaths. The stress and competition in school for jobs that may no longer exist have also been documented.

Just a day before the NPA published its latest figures, the national press reported yet another tragic double suicide attempt by school friends. On this occasion, two high-school girls tried to kill themselves by jumping off the roof of a supermarket in Kashiwazaki, Niigata prefecture. One of the girls, just 15, died, while her friend, 16, survived.

Sadly, youth suicide appears to have become such a common phenomenon that it no longer grabs press attention and reports are usually consigned to the back pages of newspapers.

Hiroshi Sakamoto observed, "We only read about suicide in the press, it is never on TV. They say it is too gloomy, too dark, not a happy subject. I feel the whole country is in a state of denial. This is perhaps why we cannot solve this problem. We are trying to ignore it, but wishing it away gets us nowhere."

Keiko Yamauchi, a former Social Democratic Party lawmaker and elementary-school teacher, has devoted much of her life to trying to improve the school environment for children. She said, "What happens in the adult world also has a deep impact on our children. We have a terrible suicide problem, and now we are beginning to see exactly the same trend replicate itself amongst our children."

She added that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi "has completely failed to address this life-or-death matter. How many children, young people, fathers or mothers have to die before our government takes any real action? Instead of wasting so much energy and national resources in assisting in the destruction of human life in Iraq, why doesn't Koizumi declare war on suicide in Japan and save thousands of lives in this country?"

Yamauchi also commented, "We must urgently tackle the suicide issue, which is destroying the fabric of our society. We need to act immediately and take concrete suicide-prevention measures. At the same time, we must also try to create a more human and caring environment for our children and their parents."

Many experts think the sharp rise in adult suicide is influencing the surge seen in child suicide rates. Some believe that insensitive media reports of suicides combined with high-profile coverage of celebrity suicides encourages some children to make copycat suicide attempts.

Elderly suicide rate the highest
As in previous surveys, the highest incidence of suicide was found amongst the elderly. The new NPA data register a record 11,529 people aged 60 years or older who took their own lives in 2003. This group accounted for an astonishing 33.5% of all cases, and was closely followed by people in their 50s, who represented 8,614 cases or 25% of all suicides.

The new statistics also marked a steep increase in the number of people in their 30s taking their own lives. The death toll for this age bracket reached 4,603, an increase of 17%, translating into 668 more cases than in the previous year.

The NPA determined that health-related problems were the predominant motive behind the majority of elderly suicides. According to the NPA statistics for 2003, a total of 15,416 people from all age groups killed themselves because of illness or health-related problems, representing an increase of 4.1% from the previous year.

International comparisons
Expressed in the international measurement for suicide, 27 out of every 100,000 Japanese people now take their own lives, giving Japan one of the highest rates among industrially advanced countries. Japan's current ratio of suicide to population size is about double that found in the United States or most European Union countries.

Based on provisional data for 2003, Japanese male and female suicide rates per 100,000 people are now roughly 40.2 for men and 14.9 for women, approaching levels normally witnessed in countries suffering severe economic hardships such as Russia, Latvia or Lithuania.

For most Japanese, these dreadful statistics will come as little surprise. They have no need to read an official analysis - just picking up a daily newspaper provides a stream of disturbing suicide reports.

Explaining the rise in suicide
Explaining the explosion in suicide is a highly complex task for which there is no shortage of elaborate theories, but in reality no easy answers. The fundamental causes lie in a highly complex weave of social and economic factors. For more than a decade, powerful socio-economic forces have been reshaping society. A great many of these currents have been generated by the long economic downturn, or at least strongly influenced by it. Economic factors such as bankruptcies, unemployment and high debt have been cited.

These economic elements have been exacerbated by various cultural traits and customs, making it especially difficult for Japan to deal with the fallout from the increased stress levels and higher incidences of mental-health problems induced by the lengthy recession. All these outlined elements have been compounded by inadequate suicide-prevention measures and a lack of effective government policy.

Will suicides continue to rise?
Michael Zielenziger, a former Tokyo-based foreign correspondent now a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley, has been researching Japanese suicide trends for his forthcoming book, Shutting Out the Sun. Zielenziger is concerned by the latest suicide figures.

"These worrying statistics demonstrate that Japanese society and its leaders have not done enough to consider the fruits of their economic prosperity," he told Asia Times Online. "Now that Japan is a wealthy country, its citizens are searching for greater meaning." He added, "The nation's schools and workplaces need to demonstrate more willingness to educate and openly discuss issues like stress and depression, which often lead to suicide."

Zielenziger also believes that the medical establishment needs to do more to tackle suicide. "The nation's medical community must become proactive and demand access to the cutting-edge anti-depressants, the SSRIs [selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors] like Prozac, that are readily available in Western nations but not yet legal in Japan," he said.

Koizumi does not appear to have examined the issue in any great detail, but has said there are no easy solutions for dealing with the suicide crisis. He has largely shied away from investing in effective suicide-prevention measures.

In sharp contrast to its suicide policy, the state has spent billions of yen on road-safety measures to reduce the death toll from traffic accidents. Consequently, while all Japanese prefectures have highly sophisticated road-safety procedures, many lack comprehensive suicide prevention networks. NPA figures for 2003 show 7,702 people were killed on the roads, while 34,427 took their own lives.

Koizumi says the government's efforts to improve the economic climate will eventually reduce suicide levels. The unemployment rate has dropped to 5.3% and bankruptcies appear to be down for the first time in four years. Some suicide experts agree with Koizumi's prognosis and think a gradual economic upturn will finally stem the merciless suicide tide. They believe the 2003 figures may represent a suicide peak.

However, suicide has become such a widespread social phenomenon that it may well take some years before numbers begin to fall back, even if a solid recovery sets in.

Hiroshi Sakamoto, the former government official and suicide councilor, is not optimistic, "I do not believe we will see any drop in suicide rates in 2004. In fact, I think they will increase. Until we stop denying the reality of the situation, I don't think Japanese society can overcome the crisis it is facing."

For World Health Organization analyses and charts about global suicide trends, click here. Those who can read Japanese can examine the NPA report here (PDF file).

J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global Communications.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Jul 28, 2004

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