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Suicide in Japan

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Demographics of Suicide | Suicide in Gender | Suicide Methods

Suicide Japan 自殺

Coping with Japan's third post-War suicide wave

Akashi Gidayu writing his death poem before committing harakiri.

Compared with most countries, suicide in Japan is a major annual cause of death. Based on its 2006 suicide statistics, Japan ranks eighth in the world, the top seven all being in eastern Europe.

Demographics of suicide in Japan

In the decade to 2007, over 30,000 people committed suicide in Japan every year, with a distinct rise in the rate from 1998. In other words, in present-day Japan, on any one day an average of 80 people take their own lives.

Predictably, the age groups among which the suicide rate is the highest correspond to general demographic trends.

The three post-War suicide waves in Japan

According to the Population Survey Report by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there have been three post-World War Two waves in suicide in Japan. While the majority of suicides in Japan since 1998 have been elderly Japanese aged between 55 and 74, the previous (lesser) wave, between 1983 and 1987, was of those between ages 35 and 54, and the first wave, 1952 to 1960 (equal in scale to the present wave), was of those aged 15 and 25 and, to a lesser extent, 25 to 34.

Suicide and gender in Japan

The main victims of suicide have always been men, at a rate which grew from an average of about 10,000 p.a. till 1998 and is now about 22,000 p.a. Apart from the late 1950s when the rate of suicides by girls aged 15 to 24 suddenly tripled and that by woman aged 25 to 34 doubled, the post-War suicide rate for Japanese women has remained steady, at between 5,000 and 10,000 per year.

Suicide and occupation in Japan

Looking at suicides in Japan by occupation, over half (57.4%) of suicides in 2007 were by the unemployed (18,990 persons). This trend of high suicide among the unemployed has not changed since WW2, but, in absolute terms, the numbers rose sharply from 1998, in line with the overall rise.

Suicide motives in Japan

Where motives for suicide in Japan are known, the most common motive has consistently been health-related. The only motive that has shown a relative rise (again, since 1998) is financial- and living-related, which peaked at 8,000 in 2003. All the other statistically recorded motives: family problems, work problems, gender problems, and school problems, have remained more or less steady at between about 1,000 and 2,000 suicides attributable to each category of problem per year.

Suicide and locality in Japan

Suicide figures in Japan show a distinct rural bias. In 2007, Yamanashi prefecture was the suicide capital of Japan, with about 3,800 cases, followed by Akita prefecture, then Aomori prefecture, Shimane and Iwate prefectures both in fourth place, then Miyazaki prefecture, then Niigata prefecture. Kanagawa prefecture had the lowest suicide rate in Japan in 2007.

Suicide methods in Japan

A noose, the most common means of suicide in Japan.

Suicide by hanging is the most common method, and was used by between two-thirds and three-quarters of male suicides in 2007, and about half the female suicides. The next most common method for men was "inhaling poisonous gases by burning coal" and, for women, jumping.

Suicide scenarios in Japan

Over half (54.7%) of the suicides in Japan in 2007 were committed at home. The next most common locations, in order, were "in vehicles" (5.7%), "from high rise buildings" (5.5%), "in bodies of water" and "in the mountains" (4.9%).

Suicide prevention in Japan

Public suicide prevention activity got underway in Japan mostly this century. The "Healthy Japan 21" campaign was launched by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in 2000, one aim of which was to reduce the annual suicide rate to less than 22,000 by 2010. In June 2006, moves made in 2005 towards legislation were spurred by a 100,000-signature petition from the public to the House of Councilors calling for suicide prevention legislation. The next month, July 2006, saw the emergence of the Basic Suicide Prevention Act, which was signed into law in October of that year.

Basic Suicide Prevention Law

The Basic Suicide Prevention Law is premised on the view that suicide is a social, rather than a personal, problem. It aims to comprehensively promote measures to prevent suicides, enhance support for suicide-bereaved families, and contribute to the creation of a social milieu where people can live healthily and with an aim in life.

Under the Basic Suicide Prevention Law, various initiatives have been launched in a variety of public institutions and arenas to raise awareness of the suicide issue, to educate people about telltale signs of possible impending suicide, and about how to handle those bereaved by suicide. The Suicide Prevention Network Association was launched on a national scale in 2006, and focuses its efforts on enhancing the welfare of the elderly in farming villages the most at-risk group in cooperation with agricultural co-ops and mutual organizations. Counselors have also been dispatched to schools around Japan to try and prevent suicide among students, particularly victims of bullying. Another group at risk, those who owe multiple debts, has also been targeted by way of various national campaigns.

How soon this third post-War wave of suicides in Japan will subside remains to be seen. Action by the government will no doubt help, but the isolation that besets so many in Japan will be a tough wall to topple.

Read more about suicide in Japan: The Suicide Diaries

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