Japan's Suicide Problem: Searching for Answers
Image Credit: Flickr (Kevin Dooley)

Japan's Suicide Problem: Searching for Answers


Last month in Osaka, a high school student, and captain of his basketball team, hanged himself one day after he told his mother that he had been struck 30 or 40 times by his coach.  This is one of many such similar incidents that have occurred in Japan over the past few decades in which verbal or physical abuse has pushed the victim to take his or her own life. Faced with the choice of enduring ongoing persecution, bullying, or high stress encounters with others, a significant number of Japanese choose to end their own lives. Indeed, in Japan suicide is seen as, along with bullying, one of the major social issues facing the country.

Annual suicide rates in Japan are considerably higher than in most other industrial countries, normally hovering around 24 suicides per 100,000 people, which is roughly double the rate in the U.S. and three times that in the UK.  Put another way, for the last fourteen years at least 30,000 Japanese have killed themselves annually, which is typically about equal in absolute terms to the U.S., which has a population that is almost two and a half times the size of Japan. The Japanese government has taken note of this problem and published a White Paper on the subject that outlined a number of steps and policies to combat it.  Tokyo’s subsequent implementation of these policies has not been effective, however.

The question remains, of course, as to why the suicide rate in Japan is so high.  Answers are difficult to come by.  At least as far back as Ruth Benedict’s book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Japanese and Western scholars have argued that Japan is a suicide tolerant culture. I am not convinced.  In my own research I have found that Japanese are usually very troubled by suicide and find the act of someone taking their own life to be heart wrenching.  That being said, although Japan is a not suicide tolerant society it is important to recognize that, unlike in many Western nations, there is no religiously-guided moral prohibition against suicide, which claims that life is a gift from one’s deity and thus has to be preserved, even if it is intolerable.  Rather, in Japan suicide is negatively constructed because it is viewed through the perspective of how it affects those left behind—particularly loved ones.  It is accordingly viewed as a selfish act that traumatizes those closest to the person who took their life.

Some scholars looking for structural and social causes behind Japan’s suicide problem have argued that there is a close correlation between unemployment and suicide rates.  In fact, during the financial crisis of 1997 and 1998, suicides increased around 35%, a change that would seem to support the idea that there is a strong correlation between economic conditions and suicides in Japan.  Employment issues and general economic problems are clearly part of the explanation for the country’s high suicide rates, but only partial—they do not, for instance, explain high suicide rates among teens and the elderly, nor do they address other aspects of Japanese society that may influence suicidal behavior. 

Manila Boy
February 21, 2014 at 14:45

I once lived in an urban slum with no electricity and water; where people lived 10 to a room. And let me tell you that despite the poverty and hunger, people smiled sincerely and still had fun. Everybody knew everybody living nearby. People took care of neighbors’ children when they went to work and people spared whatever little food they can to feed friends. And when there’s a fire people pitched in to put it out or help evacuate. Not to say there is no criminality. Far from it! I would like to believe, though, that people can actually care for strangers in the modern world. And that poverty need not be feared.

I think this is one aspect missing in modern societies: a real sense of community.

February 21, 2014 at 19:47

I so agree with you. Modern Japan especially is a very distant related culture. All people do is work, eat and sleep. Everyone is dependent on technology than people. That alone is not good enough for a fulfilled life. Theres a huge inner void in the Japanese people.

Arun s
September 20, 2013 at 23:31

It is a tragic pattern and almost a subculture in Japan. Ever since I can recall the trend has been to take " the easy way out" as some call it. To put it in perspective, given that everything is relative, it probably is easier to take one's own life when inexplicably faced with overwhelming frustration with life's challenges.

The need to be listened to and void all of ones feelings to another in itself can be immensely rewarding. It could be the very point of a turnaround when the realization that they are not alone in this desperation actually sinks in. Taking comfort in each other is people's only solace sometimes and we don't know where else to look. Happily some groups are connecting with these disparate souls lately and can and will make the difference in saving them from the horrible act of resorting to suicide.

The best and most fitting definition for suicide is 'a permanent solution for a temporary problem'. Period!

July 23, 2013 at 00:05

Suicide is caused by sensitivity.if we can chanallize our sensations through bvarious methods suicidal rate can be allivated.
Chanells are.
Religious teachings
Children in life.
Some new aims in life.
Decideing to take revenge rather die.
And changing ur residencies home towns.

Peter Williams
May 21, 2013 at 16:43

1) Oriental simply means from the East. Some people, in some places, now, find this term offensive, and prefer the term “Asian.” Nevermind that “Asian” is less specific (e.g. Siberia is in Asia, but is not considered Oriental). But yes, especially in places like the West coast if the US, using the term “oriental” marks you as being unsophisticated.

2) Therefore, by singling out somebody for using the therm “oriental,” you are guilty of the same thing you accuse the other person of: cultural insensitivity. In your case, elitism. You look down your nose at people who do not know the currently acceptable terms (perhaps they were not as well educated as you – shame on them!).

3) Who cares if the professor has a PhD? Hey, I’ve got one too. Irrelevant.

4) Also rather culturally insensitive of you to bash on Christians who might mention Jesus and pray for the Japanese. What’s wrong with that? Personally I think it’s a kind gesture to pray for your fellow human beings. And no, I’m not a Christian, but I don’t like people who bash on Christians any more than I like people who bash on Japanese or any other group. Except for elitists. :)

Koji Akamine
May 7, 2013 at 03:13

Even U.S. have large amount of suicide. Which the news caster don't publish their stories. Have you know how many taking their lives in U.S.? check it out the numbers are amazing and it is more then Japan. Even China has doubled the numbers in Last year.

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