Suicide also rises in land of rising
sun By J Sean Curtin
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 reporthere (PDF file).
Curtin is aGLOCOMfellow at the
Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global
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