The slide into recession last year wasn’t just a blow to “Abenomics,” as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s fiscal policies are known.
For some here in the Group of Seven country with the highest suicide rate, it may pose a question of life and death.
Abe’s concerted campaign to spark confidence in a population dulled by two decades of economic stagnation contributed to a 14-month slide in the number of suicides. The improvement halted in September, when the country entered its fourth recession since 2008.
The return of economic woes added to the challenges of social workers trying to combat traditional acceptance of suicide and reluctance to address the issue.
Japan, where more than 70 people take their lives each day, has a tighter link between economic developments and suicide — in the U.S., the rate rose to a 25-year high even after years of growth.
“The economy plays a big role,” said Mafumi Usui, a psychology professor at Niigata Seiryo University. That compounds the problem in Japan, because “the notion lingers that taking your own life is something resolute and decisive, something that’s not wrong,” he said.
Government data stretching back to 1978 shows that suicides here are closely tied to the economy.
The number of deaths fell to a low of 20,434 in 1981 during the boom years. In 1998 it hit 32,863, after surging 35 percent in a year as a banking crisis saw some financial institutions collapse.
When Abe took power in December 2012 with a plan to revive Japan’s economic fortunes, the optimism generated helped bring the number down again, putting it on course for the lowest level in 17 years. That mirrored the jobless rate, which hit a 17-year low of 3.5 percent in May.
With the biggest reason for the recent decline identified by officials as a drop in suicides tied to economic hardship, Abe’s efforts to reignite growth may determine whether the slide continues.
After his victory in December’s snap election, he’s assembling a stimulus plan and pledging structural changes to strengthen the economy.
More broadly, the nation needs to address cultural and social traditions that have made Japanese more tolerant of people taking their own lives, Usui said.
Those traditions date back centuries and were elevated by samurai who used “seppuku,” more commonly known abroad as “harakiri,” or belly-cutting, as a ritual suicide to protect honor, Usui said. Lovers’ suicide pacts are often depicted in Japanese film and literature as romantic, while dying for a company was seen as a way of taking responsibility, he said.
Globally, more than 800,000 people kill themselves every year, or one every 40 seconds, according to the World Health Organization. The rate in the U.S., where the main trigger is seen as mental illness, including depression, rose to 12.6 per 100,000 in 2012 — the highest since 1987, according to from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By contrast, suicides in Japan that year had fallen below 30,000 for the first time since 1997.
“A slide in suicides tied to bread-and-butter and economic issues helped reduce the overall number,” said Yusuke Takakura, who compiles the data at the Cabinet Office. Even with a recent uptick, the number of people killing themselves through November was 28 percent less than in 2009.
In 2007 the government began a campaign to break down the social taboos around addressing suicide. In 2009, it budgeted ¥10 billion over three years to train staff and set up support systems for troubled individuals. The fund was extended through this March.
Police for the first time began disclosing suicide breakdowns by prefecture, allowing local authorities to focus their resources.
The changes “opened up paths for people to live,” said Yasuyuki Shimizu, a representative of the Lifelink Suicide Prevention and Support Center, a nonprofit organization.
Adachi was the first ward in Tokyo to offer a comprehensive consultation service for patients, according to Yuuko Baba, who works there in suicide prevention. That was in December 2009, the same month that it first used the word suicide in its public literature.
One businessman who had fallen into debt said the consultation service introduced by Adachi Ward saved his life, according to an interview in a government publication in February 2011. Eight months after the man talked with a lawyer via the consultation service, he declared himself bankrupt, said Baba. It gave him another chance.
Adachi had the highest number of suicides among Tokyo’s 23 wards in 2006. After it started the program, the death toll declined to 148 in 2013, from 179 in 2010.
“With 70 to 80 people taking their own lives each day, we are still in a state of emergency,” said Lifelink’s Shimizu.