Features | Society | East Asia

Japan’s Suicide Problem: Searching for Answers

For the last fourteen years at least 30,000 Japanese have killed themselves annually. Why?

By John W. Traphagan for

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. 

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Clearly the problem doesn’t boil down entirely to economics. This is evident from the fact that the unemployment rate in Japan last year hovered around 4.4% while in the U.S. it stubbornly stood above 8% for most of 2012.  The economic aspects of the problem may lie less in the fact of unemployment than in the types of jobs people are able to obtain and the fact that a large percentage of workers are irregular or temporarily employed, making security a major concern. 

Anthropologist Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, writing about the problem of internet suicide pacts in Japan (where an individual puts up a web site asking others to meet him/her to commit suicide as a group), has raised an important point in relation to understanding what certainly must be one of the more profound causes of Japan’s high suicide rate—alienation.  She argues that this form of suicide, at least, may be related to a cultural concept in Japanese society known as ikigai, which translates as one’s purpose in life.  Japanese often place a great deal of value in having an ikigai in the form of a hobby, career, or family—the specific activity is less important than the act of doing something—and the absence of a purpose in life can be psychologically debilitating.   Group suicides, according to Dr. Ozawa de-Silva, may stem from feelings of existential alienation and suffering that are somehow alleviated in the context of killing oneself with others.  Dr. Ozawa de-Silva in no way condones these suicide pacts but rather helps us understand how, in a society that places great importance of belonging, collective acts of suicide may be seen by those involved as a way to overcome the kind of alienation that comes with self-identifying as a social outcast. 

When thinking about problems like this, it is important to understand that suicide is not an individual construct but, like many things, is a socialized concept. People in all societies view the acceptability of suicide through their society’s perspective on how stress is experienced, how one responds to stressful situations, and the moral values associated with both life and death.  Like any country, in Japan there are different attitudes about whether or not it is right to take one’s own life. 

Foreigners often believe Japan’s high suicide rates are indicative of a cultural that tolerates suicide and/or devalues human life. These non-Japanese undoubtedly affirm their beliefs through referencing historical phenomena in Japan like seppuku during samurai times and the kamikaze in World War II.  What they fail to appreciate is that these phenomena were almost certainly not perceived as suicide by Japanese at the time and in some cases today. Indeed, Japanese society during WWII viewed the kamikaze not unlike how some people in places like Sri Lanka during the civil war and parts of the Islamic world view suicide bombers from their imagined communities who took their lives to attack a communally defined external threat. That is, individuals who carry out suicide bombers are seen by some members of their in-group as having selflessly sacrificed themselves in defense of the community and its way of life—not unlike soldiers who die in battle— even as those outside this in-group view their actions as simply taking one’s own life and those of others.

The fact is that Japanese society neither condones suicide nor devalues life. To the contrary human life is deeply appreciated and suicidal behavior is seen as a tragic event that raises many questions about the suffering the individual who kills him or herself was facing.  And in the case of the student mentioned above, the suicide itself has been interpreted as a sign that something is deeply wrong when an institution that should be trusted like a school employs a coach who abuses students to the point that they kill themselves to escape it.

That being said, it’s important to underscore that in Japan, as in every society, cultural factors like the importance of belonging and having a purpose in life intersect in complex ways with more universal factors like material well-being in pushing someone to go over the edge.

John W. Traphagan, Ph.D., Department of Religious Studies and Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.