The darker side

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.


3 thoughts on “The darker side

  1. Really nice post. You understand a lot for not being there very long. When you get a chance check out Shutting out the Sun: How Japan created its own lost generation. By Michael Zielenziger. It is very insightful and his conclusions are very interesting.

  2. I would like to put forward a perspective on the real reasons behind the unacceptably high suicide Japan from Japan and so will limit my comments to what I know about here in Japan but would first like to suggest that western media reports on suicide rates in Asian countries should try harder to get away from the tendency to orientalize the serious and preventable problem of increased suicide rates here over the last 10 years by reverting to stereotypical ideas of Asian people in general.

    Mental health professionals in Japan have long known that the prime causes for the unnecessarily high suicide rate in Japan are unemployment, the effects of bankruptcies, and the increasing levels of stress on businessmen and other salaried workers who have suffered enormous hardship in Japan since the bursting of the stock market bubble here that peaked around 1997. Until that year Japan had an annual suicide of rate figures between 22,000 and 24,000 each year. Following the bursting of the stock market and the long term economic downturn that has followed here since the suicide rate in 1998 increased by around 35% and since 1998 the number of people killing themselves each year in Japan has consistently remained well over 30,000 each and every year to the present day.

    The current worldwide recession is of course impacting Japan too, so unless very proactive and well funded local and nation wide suicide prevention programs and initiatives are immediately it is very difficult to foresee the governments previously stated intention to reduce the suicide rate to around 23,000 by the year 2016 being achievable. On the contrary the numbers, and the human suffering and the depression and misery that the people who become part of these numbers, have to endure may well stay at the current levels that have persistently been the case here for the last ten years. It could even get worse unless even more is done to prevent this terrible loss of life.

    During these last ten years of these relentlessly high annual suicide rate numbers the English media seems in the main to have done little more than have someone goes through the files and do a story on the so-called suicide forest or internet suicide clubs and copycat suicides (whether cheap heating fuel like charcoal briquettes or even cheaper household cleaning chemicals) without focusing on the bigger picture and need for effective action and solutions. Economic hardship, bankruptcies and unemployment have been the main cause of suicide in Japan over the last 10 years, as the well detailed reports behind the suicide rate numbers that have been issued every year until now by the National Police Agency in Japan show only to clearly if any journalist is prepared to learn Japanese or get a bilingual researcher to do the research to get to the real heart of the tragic story of the long term and unnecessarily high suicide rate problem in Japan.

    Useful telephone number for Japanese residents of Japan who speak Japanese and are feeling depressed or suicidal: Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline Telephone Service):

    Japan: 0120-738-556 Tokyo: 3264 4343

    Andrew Grimes

    Tokyo Counseling Services

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