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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #80: August 20, 2004

Suicide in Japan: Part Twelve - Factors Influencing the Rising Suicide Rate

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

This is the fourth in a series of articles examining the latest suicide statistics.

Explaining the explosion in the suicide rate 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 Japanese society. A great many of these socio-economic currents have been generated by the long economic downturn, or at least strongly influenced by it.

Economic factors affecting suicide
Some of the dominant economic factors that have contributed to the current suicide crisis include large scale bankruptcies, increased joblessness, a sluggish business climate, accumulated debts, lower incomes, inadequate bankruptcy laws, prolonged economic stagnation, an unregulated financial loan market and corporate restructuring, inter alia.

According to statistics released by the Supreme Court in January 2004, the number of debt-ridden individuals who filed for personal bankruptcy in the first 10 months of 2003 was a massive 220,695, well over the record of 214,638 registered for the whole of 2002.

The number of such court filed cases has shot up since 1995, with a new record being set each year. People in excessive debt to consumer loan and credit card companies accounted for 201,828 cases, representing 91.4 percent of all those filing for personal bankruptcy in the first 10 months of 2003. It was the first time the number of personal bankruptcy cases has exceeded the 200,000 mark. The 2003 suicide statistics attributed financial problems as the prime cause for about 25.8 percent of all suicide cases.

According to a survey released by a Health Ministry research group in October 2002, around 60 percent of female workers and 50 percent of male employees at small and medium-size companies suffer from depression. The survey indicated that stress in the workplace is severely affecting the mental well-being of employees leading some to contemplate suicide.

A total of 11,976 employees were surveyed. In the sample, 43.9 percent of females responded that they suffered from slight depression. A further 16.2 percent said they suffered from moderate to severe depression. Among male workers, the figures were 38.7 percent for slight depression and 11 percent for moderate to severe depression.

The survey also asked whether the employees had recently experienced any kind of suicidal thoughts, of which 12 percent of the female and 9.5 percent of male respondents admitted that they had. Reasons for contemplating suicide were attributed to employment conditions and human relations at the workplaces as well as economic and family related matters.

The kind of economic elements identified in the survey have been exacerbated by various cultural traits and customs. These have made 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.

Cultural and social factors influencing suicide
Some prominent cultural features include a lack of religious prohibition against suicide, a reluctance to discuss stress-related problems, a generally negative view towards mental health issues, a literary tradition that romanticizes suicide, a view of suicide as an honorable act and a belief that sees killing oneself as an acceptable way of taking responsibility for failure, inter alia.

Additionally, both traditional and economic forces have blended with new emerging trends such as the increasing isolation of individuals within society and the breakdown of the family. This has further complicated our understanding of the causes of suicide.

All the above outlined elements have been further compounded by inadequate suicide prevention measures and a lack of effective government policy.

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.

He comments, "These worrying statistics demonstrate that Japanese society and its leaders have not done enough to consider the fruits of their economic prosperity. Now that Japan is a wealthy country, its citizens are searching for greater meaning." He adds, "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."

Inadequate suicide prevention measures
Zielenziger also believes that the medical establishment needs to do more to tackle suicide. He says, "The nation's medical community must become proactive, and demand access to the cutting-edge anti-depressants, the SSRIs like Prozac, that are readily available in Western nations but not yet legal in Japan."

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi does not appear to have examined the issue in any great detail, but has said on several occasions that there are no easy solutions for dealing with the current 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. National Police Agency (NPA) figures for 2003 show 7,702 people were killed on the roads while 34,427 took their own lives.

Will suicides continue to rise?
Koizumi believes the government's efforts to improve the economic climate will eventually reduce suicide levels. Currently, the unemployment rate has dropped to 5.3 percent and bankruptcies appear to be down for the first time in four years.

Some suicide experts agree with Koizumi's prognosis and think that 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 wide-spread social phenomenon that it may well take some years before numbers begin to fall back, even if a solid recovery sets in.

Hiroshi Sakamoto, a retired local government official and volunteer 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."

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

Related links

National Police Agency Suicide Report for 2003 (PDF Japanese)

Suicide also rises in the land of the rising sun
J. Sean Curtin, Asia Times, 28 July 2004

Suicides Reach Record High in 2003
Social Trends: Series #77, GLOCOM Platform, 5 August 2004

Youth and Rural Suicides on the Rise
Social Trends: Series #78, GLOCOM Platform, 13 August 2004

Comparing International Rates of Suicide
Social Trends: Series #79, GLOCOM Platform, 18 August 2004

(Some parts of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 28 July 2004, http://www.atimes.com, and all those sections are republished with permission. Copyright of these particular section belongs to Asia Times Online Ltd.)

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