The annual number of suicides in Japan has fallen below the 30,000 level for the first time in 15 years, the National Police Agency announced on Jan. 17. This is good news and praise should go to various efforts made by the central and local government and private-sector organizations.
But compared with other countries, the number of suicides in Japan is still high. Suicide-prevention efforts at all levels should not be slackened. Both the central and local governments should continue to push such measures as the training of personnel who can provide counseling for people who may be feeling suicidal, building suicide-prevention networks, and improvement of counseling and support for those who have attempted suicide as well as the bereaved families of suicide victims.
In 2012, 27,766 people killed themselves — a decrease of 2,885 or 9.4 percent from 2011 and falling to a level below 30,000 for the first time since 1997. From 1978, when the police started taking statistics on suicides, to 1997, the number of suicides was annually between 20,000 and 25,000. It topped 30,000 for the first time in 1998. The number of people who committed suicide rose sharply in March that year when the business year ended for most firms. The year before, significant numbers of small and medium-size enterprises began failing due to a credit crunch. Since then, the number stayed above 30,000 through 2011.
Despite the drop in suicides in 2012, the situation is still serious. The number translates into more than 70 people killing themselves a day or three people taking their lives every hour — much higher than the 0.5 deaths every hour caused by traffic accidents.
The number of suicides in Japan per 100,000 people is two to three times higher than it is in the United States and Britain. Among the eight developed countries, Japan’s suicide rate is the second highest after Russia. The tendency in Japan to regard suicide as a personal problem may have contributed to delaying necessary societal measures. In 2006, suprapartisan Diet members enacted the basic law to cope with questions related to suicide.
The next year, on the basis of the law, the central government adopted the general principles of comprehensive measures to cope with suicide-related problems.
Significantly the principles stated that suicide is not a death based on the free will of a person but is a death forced on a person who has been driven to a psychologically or socially difficult situation. The government said that it will take every necessary measure to prevent suicide.
The principles were revised in August 2012 and included measures to cope with bullying as well. The revised principle sets the goal of creating a society in which nobody will be forced to take his or her life. Both the central and local governments should keep this goal in mind and strive to ensure that the number of suicides will continue to decline.
The central government has a specific goal of decreasing the number of annual suicides by 20 percent by 2016 from the 2005 level. This means about 25,000 suicides a year. The central and local governments should realize that even if the goal is achieved, it is still worse than in other developed countries except Russia.
After the basic law was enacted, the central government started providing grants to local governments and the prefectural governments set up endowment funds to take suicide-prevention measures. Detailed data on suicides in each municipality also started to be announced.
These measures led to creation of suicide-prevention measures suitable for local situations that take into consideration such factors as people’s ages and jobs.
Local governments and private-sector organizations also have started counseling services by experts on legal matters, labor problems and mental care for people who have problems that may lead to suicide. These experts and services are acting like refuges for people with problems.
Efforts are also being made to nurture people who can detect suicidal tendencies among people and advise such people to go to experts. They are called inochi no monban (gatekeeper for life). Citizens from all walks of life ranging from doctors and lawyers to snack bar owners and barbers can serve as gatekeepers for life. Clues to people’s problems can be detected in their conversations, clothing, attitudes and so forth. It is hoped that these various efforts at local levels will gain strength and spread throughout the country.
For example, Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward started strengthening suicide-prevention measures four years ago when its mayor, Mr. Taichiro Nishikawa, realized that suicide was the No. 5 cause of deaths in the ward. The ward trained office workers, arranged lectures by members of bereaved families of people who took their own lives and developed a manual to help people with problems. It has trained some 1,200 people to serve as gatekeepers for life. In addition, the ward started helping those who had survived suicide attempts to obtain public livelihood assistance and find jobs. In 2011, suicide fell to the No. 7 cause of deaths in the ward.
A study by a private-sector organization in cooperation with bereaved families of people who killed themselves lists 68 factors that can lead to suicide, including business failure, unemployment, overwork, debts, poverty, discord among family members and depression. It has found that on average, four related factors are behind each suicide. It also has found that about 70 percent of people who killed themselves had sought advice from some groups or organizations before taking their own lives.
It is important for every citizen to realize that factors that can lead to suicide exist everywhere in this society, such as human relations within the family or at the workplace, unemployment, difficulty in finding jobs and fatigue from taking care of sick or aged people. People should not hesitate to seek help and advice when they have problems. At the same time, people should also realize that they might be able to provide invaluable help to others by simply giving a little advice.