On her way to school last Saturday, one of our young female teachers arrived at a station just in time to witness the aftermath of a growing problem in Japan; suicide by throwing oneself in front of a train. I can’t imagine the horror of watching the station crew remove the body from the tracks and carry it out through the assembled crowd.
Japan has one of the highest suicide rates amongst industrially advanced countries with over 30 000 self inflicted deaths occurring every year since 1998. Even the Japanese are becoming alarmed by the steep rise in the number of people taking their own lives. Apparently, in this country, one is roughly five times as likely to die by one’s own hand as to be killed in a traffic accident!
Aokigahara woods, a secluded forest area at the foot of Mt. Fuji, has become infamous as a favourite suicide spot because of the number of bodies found hanging from trees and death by train has become so rampant that the Japanese railways now seek financial compensation from the families of jumpers because of the delays that are caused.
There are many reasons for the rising suicide rate but most are related to the recession that Japan has been experiencing in recent years. Men account for a staggering 73% of those who take their own lives and many are businessmen experiencing financial difficulties and/or work related stress and exhaustion. There is no doubt that this is a country of hard working, tired people. We see the weariness on their faces every day. Men, especially, work long hours and are under a great deal of pressure to succeed. One of my private students, a fascinating young man who works for a trading company, often has to cancel his Saturday English lesson due to work commitments. Last Friday, he worked through the night until 6:00 a.m. without even having supper because his company is preparing for important foreign visitors. He came to class without having had any sleep because, like many others, learning English is not simply a hobby for him. It’s required by employers as another means of getting ahead.
The unemployment rate here falls below that of most other developed countries but it has been rising since 1998 so some of those who take their own lives are amongst the jobless. Family breakdown is another reason for suicide. The divorce rate has climbed significantly as women have joined the workforce and found the means to free themselves from troubled marriages. Perhaps the saddest statistic is the growing number of bullied students who are committing suicide. Apparently bullying is rampant in Japanese schools.
Cultural issues come into play as well. Japan is one of the few countries in the world where suicide is still considered an honourable act. It has long been seen as a way to restore honour to one’s name, family or organization when one has failed in some way and Japanese literary tradition romanticizes it. There is also a complete lack of religious prohibition against suicide here and there has long been a reluctance to discuss and deal with serious mental health and stress related issues. It isn’t only good cold medications that are banned here. Many of the cutting edge antidepressants that are readily available in western countries are not yet legal in Japan.
Until recently, a book entitled “The Perfect Suicide Manual” which gives explicit instructions on how to commit suicide by a wide variety of means, was consistently on the bestseller list and readily available. It was finally designated a “harmful publication” after the suicide death of a 12-year-old girl.
As I enjoy the beauty and the rich history of this country, I’m reminded that there is a darker side and a high price being paid for the rapid advances that are being made.