Trend of suicide deaths from 1960 to 2007 for the nations of Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States
Suicide in Japan has become a major national social issue. Japan has a relatively high suicide rate compared to other countries, but the number of suicides is declining and as of 2013 has been under 30,000 for three consecutive years. In 2014 on average 70 Japanese people die by suicide every day, and the majority were men. Seventy-one percent of suicides in Japan were male, and it is the leading cause of death in men aged 20–44. By 2016, suicide rates had reached a 22-year low of 21,764, that is, men decreased by 1,664 to 15,017 and women decreased by 597 to 6,747.
As with many other countries, factors in suicide include unemployment, periods of economic stagnation or recession (such as the “Lost 20 Years” between 1990 and 2010), and social pressures. In 2007, the National Police Agency (NPA) revised the categorization of motives for suicide into a division of 50 reasons with up to three reasons listed for each suicide. Suicides traced to losing jobs surged 65.3 percent, while those attributed to hardships in life increased 34.3 percent. Depression remained at the top of the list for the third year in a row, rising 7.1 percent from the previous year.
In Japanese culture, there is a long history of considering certain types of suicides honorable, especially during military service. For example, seppuku was the use of a short sword for self-disembowelment practiced mainly by samurai (warriors) to avoid dishonor, such as after defeat in battle or as an act of protest against the government. Kamikaze was the method of flying a plane into the enemy used during World War II. Banzai charges were human wave attacks used during the Pacific War. During the Battle of Saipan and Battle of Tinian, Japanese combatants and civilians committed mass suicide at Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff.
There has been a rapid increase in suicides since the 1990s. For example, 1998 saw a 34.7% increase over the previous year. This has prompted the Japanese government to react by increasing funding to treat the causes of suicide and those recovering from attempted suicides.
Typically, most suicides are men; 71% of suicide victims in 2007 were male. In 2009, the number of suicides among men rose 641 to 23,472 (with those aged 40–69 accounting for 40.8% of the total). Suicide was the leading cause of death among men aged 20–44. Males are two times more likely to cause their own deaths after a divorce than females are. Nevertheless, suicide is still the leading cause of death for women age 15–34 in Japan.
In 2009, the number of suicides rose 2 percent to 32,845, exceeding 30,000 for the twelfth straight year and equating to nearly 26 suicides per 100,000 people.
A frequent location for suicides is in Aokigahara, a forested area at the base of Mount Fuji. In the period leading up to 1988, around 30 suicides occurred there every year. In 1999, 74 suicides occurred, the most on record in a given year until 2002, when 78 suicides were found. The following year, a total of 105 bodies were found, making 2003 the deadliest year on record in Aokigahara. The area is patrolled by police looking for suicides. Police records show that, in 2010, there were 247 suicide attempts (54 of which were fatal) in the forest.
Railroad tracks are also a common place for suicide, and the Chūō Rapid Line is particularly known for a high number. Japanese railroad companies have installed chest-high track barriers, as well as blue-tinted lights which are intended to calm people’s mood, in attempts to decrease suicide attempts in stations.
The prefecture which ranks highest by suicides as of 2010 is Akita Prefecture, with 31.86 suicide victims per 100,000 inhabitants, 28% above the national average of 22.94 victims per 100,000 people. The opposite is Nara Prefecture, with 17.28 suicide victims per 100,000 inhabitants.
Nearly 2,000 high school students have died by suicide as a result of bullying. The statistics for the year 2014 showed for the first time that suicide was the most common cause of death among those aged 10 to 19. The Japanese term shidōshi (指導死) is used in cases that students commit suicide as a result of strict discipline from teachers.
Historically, Japan has been a male-dominated society with strong family ties and correlating social expectations; however, the bursting of the bubble which brought about the death of the “jobs-for-life” culture has left these heads of families unexpectedly struggling with job insecurity or the stigma of unemployment. Japan’s economy, the world’s third-largest, experienced its worst recession since World War II in early 2009, propelling the nation’s jobless rate to a record high of 5.7 percent in July 2009. The unemployed accounted for 57 percent of all suicides, the highest rate of any occupation group. As a result of job losses, social inequality (as measured on the Gini coefficient) has also increased, which has been shown in studies to have affected the suicide rates in Japan proportionately more than in other OECD countries.
A contributing factor to the suicide statistics among those who were employed was the increasing pressure of retaining jobs by putting in more hours of overtime and taking fewer holidays and sick days. According to government figures, “fatigue from work” and health problems, including work-related depression, were prime motives for suicides, adversely affecting the social wellbeing of salarymen and accounting for 47 percent of the suicides in 2008. Out of 2,207 work-related suicides in 2007, the most common reason (672 suicides) was overwork, a death known as karōshi.
Furthermore, the void experienced after being forced to retire from the workplace is said to be partly responsible for the large number of elderly suicides every year. In response to these deaths, many companies, communities, and local governments have begun to offer activities and classes for recently retired senior citizens who are at risk of feeling isolated, lonely, and without purpose or identity.
Consumer loan companies have much to do with the suicide rate. The National Police Agency states that one fourth of all suicides are financially motivated. Many deaths every year are described as being inseki-jisatsu (引責自殺, “responsibility-driven” suicides). Japanese banks set extremely tough conditions for loans, forcing borrowers to use relatives and friends as guarantors who become liable for the defaulted loans, producing extreme guilt and despair in the borrower. Rather than placing the burden on their guarantors, many have been attempting to take responsibility for their unpaid loans and outstanding debts through life insurance payouts. In fiscal year 2005, 17 consumer loan firms received a combined 4.3 billion yen in suicide policy payouts on 4,908 borrowers – or some 15 percent of the 32,552 suicides in 2005. Lawyers and other experts allege that, in some cases, collectors harass debtors to the point they take this route. Japanese nonbank lenders, starting in the mid-1990s, began taking out life insurance policies which include suicide payouts on borrowers that included suicide coverage, and borrowers are not required to be notified.
There is substantial cultural tolerance for suicide, which has been “elevated to the level of an esthetic experience” through cultural and social experiences common to many Japanese.
The general attitude toward suicide has been termed “tolerant”, and in many occasions suicide is seen as a morally responsible action. This cultural tolerance may stem from the historical function of suicide in the military. In feudal Japan, honorable formal suicide (seppuku) among Samurai (Japanese warrior) was considered a justified response to failure or inevitable defeat in battle. Traditionally, seppuku involved the slashing open of one’s stomach with a sword. The purpose of this was to release the Samurai’s spirit upon the enemy and thus avoid dishonorable execution and probable torture at the hand of an enemy. Today, honor suicides are also referred to as hara-kiri, literally “belly-cutting”.
Cultural tolerance of suicide in Japan may also be explained by the concept of amae, or the need to be dependent on and accepted by others. For the Japanese, acceptance and conformity are valued above one’s individuality. As a result of this perspective, one’s worth is associated with how one is perceived by others. Ultimately, this can lead to fragile self-concept and an increased likelihood of considering dying by suicide when one feels alienated.
The cultural heritage of suicide as a noble tradition still has some resonance. While being investigated for an expenses scandal, Cabinet minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka took his life in 2007. The former governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, described him as a “true samurai” for preserving his honour. Ishihara was also the scriptwriter for the film I Go To Die For You, which glorifies the memory and bravery of the kamikaze pilots in WWII.
Although Japanese culture historically permitted more tolerant views on the morality and social acceptability of suicide, the rapid growth in suicide rate since the 1990s has increased public concern about suicide. In particular, the trend of increased Internet usage among adolescents and young adults as well as the rising popularity of websites related to suicide has raised concerns from the public and the media about how Internet culture may be contributing to higher suicide rates.
One phenomenon that has been particularly concerning is that of Shinjū (suicide pacts) that are formed among individuals, typically strangers, via Internet forums and messageboards. These pacts, which are popularly referred to as “Internet group suicide”, are formed with the intention of all individuals meeting to die by suicide at the same time, by the same method.
While the concept of group suicide also has a historical presence in Japanese culture, traditional shinjū differs from modern Internet group suicide because it occurred among lovers or family members rather than among strangers. Another difference is that mutual consent from those who die by historical shinjū was not required. In other words, certain forms of shinjū might be considered “murder-suicide” in Western cultures rather than suicide. An example of this type of shinjū would be a mother killing her children and then killing herself.
An example of historical shinjū in Japanese literature can be found in Chikamatsu Monzaemon‘s puppet play from 1703 entitled Sonezaki Shinjuu (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”), which was later re-engineered for the kabuki theater. The inspiration for the play was an actual double suicide which had then recently occurred between two forbidden lovers.
These modern shinjū have not received the same level of tolerance or social acceptability as an honor suicide (seppuku or hara-kiri) from the Japanese media. Internet group suicide has generally been portrayed as a thoughtless and impulsive act by the media because it seems that there is no compelling reason for why individuals enter into such pacts. In contrast, seppuku serves a specific function; to preserve honor rather than die at the hand of an enemy. However, this perception has been challenged by research on Internet group suicide by Ozawa de-Silva, who argues that these deaths are “characterized by severe existential suffering, a loss of the “worth of living” (ikigai)…and a profound loneliness and lack of connection with others”.
Overall, modern public concern about Japan’s increasing suicide rate has tended to focus on suicide as a social issue rather than a public health concern. The distinction here is that Japanese culture emphasizes maladjustment into society and social factors as playing a larger role in an individual’s decision to commit suicide than an individual psychopathology that is biological in nature. Furthermore, stigma surrounding mental health care still exists in Japan. Thus, there has been more emphasis on reforming social programs that contribute to economic stability (i.e. welfare) rather than creating specific mental health services.
According to The New Yorker, “by tradition, a mother who killed herself but not her children was thought to be truly wicked.” – wiki