A united lobby for life

Japan has seen more than 30,000 people kill themselves annually for eight consecutive years since 1998. Last year, 32,552 people took their own lives, a total that breaks down to 89.18 suicides per day and 3.71 suicides every hour. Certainly these are grim figures.

To help rectify the situation, the Diet on Thursday passed a law requiring the central and local governments and enterprises to adopt measures to prevent suicide. Another pillar of the law is a call for cooperation between the public and private sectors with regard to the care of bereaved family members of suicide victims and of those who have attempted suicide. The law, which lays down basic approaches toward suicide prevention, will give legal grounding to various suicide-prevention measures already in place and is expected to help make those measures work more effectively than before.

The drafting of the bill is credited to a nonpartisan effort among lawmakers. The Lower House unanimously passed the law, which the Upper House had already endorsed. One influencing factor was a signature drive led by nongovernment organization (NGO) Life Link, established in October 2004. The Tokyo-based group began its campaign in April with the goal of collecting 30,000 signatures, a number roughly corresponding to the annual number of suicides in Japan. By early June, it had collected some 101,000 signatures, reflecting a large number of people who have grieved over the suicide of family members as well as those who fear being cornered into choosing suicide themselves under some circumstances.

Sufferers include children whose parents killed themselves. In 2000, the number of such children younger than 20 was about 90,000. The measures should include helping them recover from the trauma of their loss and protecting them from possible suicidal tendencies.

Through 1997, the number of suicides nationwide was slightly less than 25,000 annually. But 1998 was a turning point. That year, marked by bank failures and the deepening of corporate restructuring efforts, saw the number jump to 32,863. The number has hovered around that level since then.

In 2004, the number of suicides per 100,000 people was 24, the second worst among industrialized countries after Russia. Of those who left suicide notes, 40 percent cited health reasons; 31 percent, financial and livelihood-related problems; and 9 percent, family issues. Attention should be paid to the fact that suicide is the No. 1 cause of death among males in their 20s and 30s. The suicide rate is very high among males over 40.

The government’s response to the suicide problem has been rather slow. In 2002, an experts’ committee within the health ministry proposed setting up a suicide prevention center. But no concrete action was taken. Only after the Upper House’s Health, Labor and Welfare Committee adopted a resolution in July 2005, calling on the government to draw up a comprehensive policy on suicides, did the government establish an interministerial liaison committee. That was last September; a comprehensive policy was drawn up in December.

The government has set a goal of reducing the number of suicides to less than 25,000 annually in 10 years. Even that figure is about three times greater than the number of people killed in traffic accidents annually.

The law correctly observes that various social factors are behind suicide and that society as a whole must tackle the problem. To achieve results, it calls for close cooperation among the central government and local governments, medical institutions, enterprises, schools, communities and NGOs.

The central government will write a policy paper on suicide prevention and set up a task force headed by the chief Cabinet secretary to implement comprehensive measures. It will also submit an annual report to the Diet. The central and local governments will be obligated to carry out suicide-related research, improve medical services, build systems to help people with suicidal tendencies and lend support to bereaved families.

To attain the aim of the new law, a system needs to be established in which people can easily talk about their problems and receive advice. Detailed research will also be important, including efforts to correctly grasp the circumstances, lifestyle and mental conditions of those people who have committed suicide. Cooperation between bereaved families and NGOs will be indispensable in such research.

Since NGOs are likely to have strong ties with these families, they are expected to play an important role in collecting and analyzing information. Research results will offer helpful clues as to how local governments, NGOs and enterprises can build effective networks to prevent suicides in communities and workplaces.