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Suicide in Japan

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Suicide is one of the favourite topics of Japan-bashing Westerners.  True, the level of suicides is high in Japan.  But too little is really known and understood about this tragedy.

According to the OECD, in 2005 Japan had about 20 suicides for every 100,000 persons, a big jump from around 15 for much of the 1990s (with the global economic crisis, the figure has since gone up even higher).  But Japan does not have the world’s highest level of suicides.  In the OECD club of developed countries, that prize goes to Korea where the rate of suicides has been rising tragically since 1990.  And former communist countries like Belarus, Lithuania, Russia, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Hungary all have higher rates of suicide than does Japan.  America has a much lower rate of suicide, about 10 per 100,000 persons.

Much noise is made of the dramatic rise in Japanese suicide since 1998.  But prior to that, the suicide rate had fallen from the mid-80s to mid-90s.  At one point, it was equal to the OECD average.  Japan’s current suicide rate is not much higher than the rates of the 1960s and 1970s.  In fact, what we may be seeing is a new and third post-war wave of suicide.  For the OECD countries as a group, suicide has been declining gradually since the mid-1980s, suggesting that public action to tackle this problem may be working.  Government programs in Finland have reportedly has great success.

Who are these Japanese who commit suicide?  And why do they commit suicide more than people in most other countries? 

First, Japan follows the global trend, it’s men who take their life more than women.  And of all age groups, it is the elderly with the highest suicide rate, although men are most at risk in middle age, as well as old age.  But if a younger person is going die, suicide is the most likely cause of death.  Youth suicide is the fastest growing.   

Many methods are used for suicide like jumping in front of trains, leaping off cliffs and mountains (near Mount Fuji is a favourite spot), hanging or overdosing.  But a new trend has been the rise of Internet suicide pacts – the first one took place in Japan in 2003.  And some Internet sites provide instructions on how to commit suicide.   

All sorts of reasons are speculated for causing suicides in Japan.  Could it be economic crisis?  It is not clear that Japan is more affected by crisis than other countries, although Japan may have suffered more than others in terms of loss of economic security as the lifetime employment system is breaking down and irregular employment is rising.  One curious story is that of lenders taking out life insurance policies on borrowers, who they then harass to the point of suicide when they cannot repay. 

Could it be Japan’s aged society?  May be.  Japan has the world’s highest share of aged people, who may suffer from physical disabilities, depression or isolation.  And Japan has been very slow to introduce antidepression drugs. 

Could Japanese suicide be mainly a cultural phenomenon?  True, ritual suicide was traditionally glorified in Japan amongst samurai ("hara-kiri") and lovers and other intimte relations ("shinjyuu").  And then there were the "kamikaze" pilots at the end of World War 2.  And even today, the suicide of a famous, charismatic figure can inspire emulation. 

Japan has been called a “shame society” where people who are unable to live up to expectations turn to aggression against themselves after being fired or going bankrupt.  Saving face and honour can be worth more than life itself.  It is also thought of as a way of taking responsibility for problems, like when in 2007 the agriculture minister committed suicide.  Mental illnesses are often thought to be shameful, particularly to families – marriage prospects of family members may be adversely affected. 

Japan has also been called a “sacrifice society” where people would prefer to sacrifice themselves, rather than being a burden on others.  Treatment of mental illness is still backward.  More fundamentally, Japan is still a very hierarchical and authoritarian society (not the “caring society” of now-deceased former Prime Minister Hashimoto), where bullying and arrogance are common in schools and the workplace.

Surely all of these factors are relevant, and we will never be able to quantify their relative importance.  But what is certain is that compared with many other countries, the lines of defense are weak.  People can be stopped from committing suicide.  Counseling, awareness-raising, hotlines, medicine and making it more difficult to commit suicide (gun control, barriers on train platforms, etc) can work.  If we are alert, we can look out for signs, and stop the suicide case.  Many waver on the brink, and can be pulled back from the precipice.  Despite some recent efforts by the government, Japan’s government and civil society has simply not done enough.

While we are looking at suicide, we have to recognize that it is just one form of physical violence.  Japan may have one of the world’s highest rates of suicide, but it has one of the world’s lowest rates of murder.  And while much is made of guns and violence in the US, this is nothing compared with many countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America.  Elsewhere in Asia, murder is at shockingly high levels in Mongolia, Thailand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and India.  There may be a case of some Japanese internalizing violent reactions which are externalized in other countries. 

The OECD also reports on what it calls criminal victimization which covers theft of vehicles, burglary, robbery, sexual offenses against women, assaults, consumer fraud, corruption and fears of crime.  Japan has the lowest overall rate of “conventional victimization” of all the countries reported.  Japan is only above average when it comes to motor-cycle and bicycle theft, and feeling unsafe on the street after dark.

So, all things considered, the situation may not be so bad in Japan.  Nevertheless, there are many simple things that the government could do to cut dramatically the rate of suicide, like improving suicide hot line services, and better treatment of mental illness.  It may in fact be very easy to return to an OECD average rate of suicide.

It is most certainly worth the effort.  Beyond the loss of the individual there is the pain for the family and friends left behind.  A good friend of mine is today still suffering from the suicide of her father, although she was very young at the time of his death, and has no memory of him now. 


Society at a Glance 2009: OECD Social Indicators – www.oecd.org