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Suicide in Japan
[2014.10.09] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية | Русский |

More than 27,000 people chose to end their lives in 2013 in Japan, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. While the number of suicides has begun to decline in recent years, figures remain high compared with other developed nations. We look at global figures and consider various factors affecting people’s decisions to take their own lives.

Hearing that people have taken their lives can be a shock no matter what the circumstances are. In Japan, a recent string of highly publicized suicides have rattled society, focusing attention on the country’s high suicide rate. In August 2014, Dr. Sasai Yoshiki, a well-known researcher and the Riken Center for Developmental Biology’s deputy director, hung himself after papers on STAP cells he had coauthored were discredited. Earlier in the year, a male member of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force killed himself aboard ship after being severely bullied by a superior officer. And in one of the more heart-wrenching cases, two sixth-grade girls, for unknown reasons, jumped to their deaths from an apartment building in Tokyo in early September. 

But as disturbing as these deaths are, they represent only the tip of the iceberg of suicides in Japan.

Health Problems a Leading Factor for Older Men

According to the Cabinet Office’s 2014 White Paper on Suicide Prevention, National Police Agency figures, and other sources, Japan saw 27,283 people take their own lives in 2013. This is more than six times the 4,373 traffic fatalities seen in the same year, and in simple terms means that once every 20 minutes someone in the country died by his or her own hand. Men accounted for 68.9% of all suicides, with 18,787 choosing to end their own lives. By age, the highest suicide incidence was among Japanese in their sixties, with 4,716, or 17.3% of suicides, followed by people in their forties, with 4,589, or 16.8% overall. Suicide by those in their fifties was third highest with 4,484, or 16.4%, followed by people in their seventies, with 3,785, or 13.9%.

Health problems were cited as the main factor in 13,680 suicides, significantly leading all other causes. Financial difficulty was the second most common motive, leading to 4,636 suicides, followed by family problems at 3,930 and work issues at 2,323. Other notable circumstances included troubles in romantic relationships and at school. An obvious takeaway from these figures, which came in the same order in the previous year as well, is that concerns over failing health play a dominant role in people’s decisions to take their own lives. This is particularly the case for middle-aged and elderly men.

Leading Cause of Death Among Younger Generations

Figures for 2013 marked the fourth consecutive annual decline in Japan’s number of suicides. Of particular note was a drop in cases motivated by financial difficulties, which the NPA attributes to an upturn in the economy and suicide prevention efforts by local authorities. Despite this decline, though, suicide remains high among those in the 15–39 cohort, with people in this age group more often dying at their own hands than by any other cause. The issue is of significant concern, as Japan is the only G7 nation where suicide is the leading cause of death for the 15–34 age group.

Annual suicides in Japan fluctuated between 20,000 and 25,000 during the 20-year period of 1978–97. The year 1998 saw a dramatic rise, however, skyrocketing to 32,863 and marking the first time ever since statistics were first compiled in 1897 that Japan topped 30,000 suicides in a single year. Numbers have stayed in this range for over a decade, peaking in 2003 at a record high of 34,427. Japan’s suicide level has slowly declined since then, eventually falling below 30,000 for the first time in 15 years in 2012, which saw 27,858 suicides. The number fell by an additional 575 in 2013.

Leading Countries for Suicide

Despite this fall in the number of cases, Japan still remains among the world’s most suicide-prone countries. According to a WHO report on suicide prevention, globally, over 800,000 people killed themselves in 2012, with 11 countries recording more than 10,000 suicide deaths. India led the world in suicides with 258,075, followed by China with 120,730 and the United States with 43,361. Russia was fourth, with 31,997 people taking their own lives, while Japan was fifth with 29,442, followed by South Korea with 17,908 and Pakistan with 13,337.

In terms of the suicide rate, Guyana led with 44.2 suicides per 100,000 people, followed by North Korea at 38.5 and South Korea at 28.9. India was fourth at 21.1, followed by Japan at 18.5. While the actual number of people in Japan taking their own lives is lower than many countries, such as India, the rate is by comparison extremely high (India has a population 10 times that of Japan).

Suicide Deeply Affecting the Young and Old

According to OECD statistics, South Korea has the highest suicide rate among the organization’s member countries, followed by Hungary and then Japan. South Korea and Japan share suicide as the leading cause of death for the 15–34 age group. Suicide rates are also high among elderly males in both countries. The increase of suicides among younger age groups in Japan and South Korea is of particular concern, as Western countries are seeing a decline in such cases. Authorities are concerned over the factors behind the high rates and the potential consequences that losing so many young people will have on the future of the aging countries.  

Experts in Japan have been looking closely at various precipitating factors in suicides, noting negative impacts related to Japan’s prolonged economic downturn, poor working conditions, and trouble in the workplace as leading factors driving suicide rates higher for working-age people. Middle-aged and elderly people face additional factors, including health issues, financial worries, fatigue from caring for an aged parent or partner, and isolation from society. Bullying and other school-related worries have stood out as prominent aspects in suicides among adolescents.

Further Suicide Prevention Measures Needed

When natural disaster strikes, coping with the death of loved ones and the loss of home and property can be overwhelming, pushing many survivors to take their own lives. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in 2011, suicide has remained a major issue affecting survivors. In the time since the triple calamity of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 117, mostly men, have chosen to end their lives, illustrating the long-lasting effects of the disaster.

In June 2007, the Japanese government established its General Principles of Suicide Prevention policy. In accordance with a suicide prevention law passed earlier by the Diet, this laid out various initiatives to address the country’s high suicide rate. As part of these initiatives, local authorities have implemented age-specific suicide prevention programs focusing on relevant factors affecting various age groups. Such efforts have made significant progress in reducing Japan’s suicide rate, but the need still remains for work at all levels of society.

(Banner photo: Health problems remain a leading motive for suicide among the elderly.)

  • [2014.10.09]
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