Military bedeviled by high suicide rate

by Kakumi Kobayashi

Kyodo

The Self-Defense Forces are struggling to curb suicides in its ranks, a serious problem that has haunted the military’s 240,000 members for years.

A total of 83 members of the SDF killed themselves between fiscal 2007 and March 2008, and the suicide ratio stands at 34.4 per 100,000 people.

On the surface, the ratio does not seem remarkably high because it is smaller than the 37.7 suicide ratio for men in the general public. Some 95 percent of SDF personnel are men.

But experts and some Defense Ministry officials warn that the circumstances surrounding SDF suicides are serious, given the fact that public servants enjoy stable employment and pay conditions.

On top of that, the 34.4 ratio was much higher than the 14.9 figure logged by the U.S. military in 2007.

Experts say the main factors are stress and insufficient support, especially for young members who are more likely to commit suicide.

But older SDF officers say there is no magic bullet for the problem and that it is difficult to understand the thinking of young members, who officers say are heavily dependent on the Internet and mobile phones to sustain their morale.

Defense Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi views the matter not as a problem unique to the SDF, but one that mirrors society at large.

“The disposition of people of late, including those outside the SDF, has changed from the past,” Hayashi, 47, told a recent press conference.

“How to maintain morale among personnel is a crucial task” and many other countries have similar problems, Hayashi said.

In 2000, the former Defense Agency made a special proposal to address mental health problems involving SDF personnel and set up an intraministry task force three years later in an effort to curb the number of suicides.

But suicides in the military jumped to 94 in fiscal 2004 from 75 the previous year and continued to top 90 three years in a row, ministry officials said.

The breakdown by service in fiscal 2007 was 48 from the Ground Self-Defense Force, which had 150,000 members, 23 from the Maritime Self-Defense Force, which had 45,000 members, and 12 from the Air Self-Defense Force, which had 45,000 members.

The causes, however, were categorized as “unknown” in more than half of the cases, with the other suicides traced to financial trouble and low self-confidence, the officials said.

In late August, a high court handed down a ruling on a damages suit involving the death of a sailor who was serving aboard a destroyer in 1999 that shocked the ministry and the SDF.

The parents of the sailor claimed that bullying was behind their son’s death. The Fukuoka High Court, however, stopped short of determining the sailor died as a result of bullying, but held that the government was responsible because the suicide was caused by verbal abuse and the actions of one of his superiors.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys say it was the first court ruling recognizing government responsibility for the suicide of an SDF member. The government did not appeal.

“We must take the ruling seriously. . . . But we don’t know what to do immediately,” a ranking GSDF officer said on condition of anonymity, referring to difficulties communicating with younger personnel.

“An officer I know told me a story: He had scolded one of his subordinates during a drill. After the drill, the officer thought that his language might have been too strong and tried to invite the man whom he chided for a drink,” the officer said.

“But the officer only found the young guy had already called his mom immediately after he returned to his room and told her how he was treated during the drill,” he said.

An MSDF officer said many personnel are under stronger pressure and stress than in the past.

Most of the MSDF’s vessels and offices have been chronically short-staffed since Japan started dispatching units for the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.