• The Associated Press

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Suicides are surging this year among Japan’s increasingly active military ranks and have hit a record pace that outstrips the national rate, the Defense Agency said Thursday.

In the first four months of this fiscal year, which began in April, 31 members of the Self-Defense Forces killed themselves, an official for the Defense Agency said on condition of anonymity.

If the trend continues, the military would suffer 93 suicides for the year, with an annual rate of 39 suicides per 100,000 soldiers — far above the rate of 27 suicides per 100,000 reported in fiscal 2003 in the general population.

The highest number of suicides among Japanese soldiers in one year so far is 78 in 2002. The SDF has 235,899 members.

Suicides in Japan in general hit an all-time high last year at 34,427, the National Police Agency reported last month. The trend was blamed on health and financial troubles.

The rise in military suicides comes as Japan has deployed troops on a humanitarian mission to Iraq, the first time Japanese soldiers have gone to a combat zone since World War II.

The agency official refused to comment on the reasons for the increase or release details such as the locations of the deaths.

But Yumiko Misaki, acting director of the Tokyo Lifeline counseling service, said soldiers have been under increasing emotional strain in recent years.

“The change in environment in the military, such as the transfer of members away from their families, makes it difficult for them to find a place where they feel at ease,” she said.

The threat of violence also is taking its toll, Misaki said.

“They feel more fear than ordinary people,” she added.

The Iraq dispatch is part of a slowly growing involvement of Japan’s military in operations abroad. Japanese forces also provided logistic backup in the war in Afghanistan.

The deployment in Iraq has raised concerns at home that the country could be drawn into the fighting, and some critics say it violates Japan’s pacifist Constitution.

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