The number of suicides last year slipped below 30,000 for the first time in 15 years, falling 9.4 percent from 2011 to 27,766, the National Police Agency said in a preliminary report Thursday.

The annual figure remained between 20,000 and 26,000 from 1978 to 1997 before hovering above 30,000 since 1998.

Last year 19,216 males committed suicide, down by 1,739 from the previous year and falling below 20,000 for the first time in 15 years, the NPA said. Female suicides numbered 8,550, down 1,146.

A Cabinet Office official in charge of suicide prevention efforts attributed the decline largely to progress in countermeasures taken by local governments, including promoting counseling and enhancing diagnostic ability at mental health clinics.

But the official pointed to the need for further efforts, saying the latest figure is "still at a high level."

Monthly totals fell below those from a year earlier in nine months of 2012, with May recording a sizable fall of 25.5 percent and June seeing a 24.1 percent drop. By month, March has the most suicides, at 2,584.

"A community-based approach over the past three years, aided by ¥10 billion in government subsidies, must have been effective as it helped the private sector offer consultations and hotlines," said Yutaka Motohashi, a vice president of Akita University who studies countermeasures against suicides.

He added, however, that it is necessary to examine which local governments were unable to make significant achievements and urge them to review their measures.

Faced with a stubbornly high rate of people killing themselves, the central government introduced a new guideline for countermeasures last August in an effort to create "a society where no one is forced to commit suicide." The measures include support for attempted suicide survivors.