Suicide in Japan: Part One -
The Suicide Crisis amongst Middle-Aged Men
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
On Thursday 6 February 2003, the Fuji-Yoshida police station in Yamanashi Prefecture issued its now grim annual report on the number of suicides committed in the Aokigahara woods area around the base of Mount Fuji. In 2002, the corpses of 78 suspected suicide victims were found hanging in the vicinity of what has now become known in the media as the "suicide forest." The 2002 figure was an all-time high, eclipsing the previous 1998 record of 73 cases. This increase is almost certain to be mirrored in the national suicide rate for 2002 which will be issued later in 2003. Reflecting recent national suicide trends, the overwhelming majority of the dead found in the "suicide forest" were men, many in their forties and fifties. These tragic findings highlight the suicide crisis amongst middle-aged Japanese men.
National Police Agency figures released in July 2002 showed that 31,402 people committed suicide during 2001. This was an increase of 915 people from 2000. It also represented the fourth consecutive year in which deaths by suicide had exceeded the 30,000 barrier. In the ten-year period up to 1997, the annual suicide figure hovered in a band of between 15,000 to 25,000 people. It dramatically shot up in 1998 and has been growing ever since. Currently, on an average day more than 80 Japanese take their own lives. According to the 2001 statistics, 22,144 men killed themselves, accounting for 71% of all suicides in that year. This ratio has remained almost constant since 1997, indicating that the suicide crisis is predominantly a male phenomenon.
Men in their forties and fifties now account for about 40% of all Japan's suicides. When the national data is analyzed by age, it clearly shows the number of suicides sharply rises at age 40 with suicide overtaking cancer as the leading cause of death for men in the age bracket of 40 to 44. The present upsurge in the suicide rate can be largely accounted for by a massive increase in suicides among those aged 40 or older.
Researchers say that the number of suicides is closely related to Japanese social and economic trends. Analysis for the first year when suicides broke through the 30,000 barrier seems to confirm this. From 1998 onwards, the Japanese unemployment rate has risen rapidly with many middle-aged men suddenly finding themselves losing their jobs. In 1998, the unemployment rate leapt to 4.1% from 3.4% in 1997. Corporate bankruptcies also reached a record level in the same year. Since 1998, suicides have become prevalent in men aged over forty.
Formerly health problems were considered to be the leading cause or motive for suicide, but in recent years employment and financially related problems have sharply increased. In 2001, a record 6,845 suicides were directly attributed to economic difficulties. This was the highest figure since police started compiling data in 1978. Moreover, 2,872 people left suicide notes stating that they were killing themselves for financial reasons with 63.7% of these people being in their forties and fifties.
The government response to the terrible suicide crisis amongst middle-aged men and the population in general has been far too slow. Furthermore, there has been little general debate on how the issue can be aggressively tackled by society as a whole. Even though such a serious social issue can not be ignored, to some degree the subject of suicide is still a difficult one for Japanese society to confront. The government set up a committee in 2001 to study the rising suicide rate, but it is not due to report back its finding until 2003 or 2004.
The slow-motion response will offer little comfort to those who have already lost loved ones in the "suicide forest." Unless the government rapidly takes drastic steps to address the suicide issue, the Fuji-Yoshida police report for the Aokigahara woods in 2003 may well set another horrific record.
(Copyright 2003 South China Morning Post. A shorter version of this article
appeared in the South China Morning Post on 20 February 2003 and is
published here with permission.)