National / Social Issues

Landmark new laws put suicide prevention front and center

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

In what was hailed as a landmark development, the Diet passed an amendment last week to the suicide prevention law for the first time since its enactment 10 years ago — this time requiring local-level authorities to take preventive action.

Experts say the overhaul symbolizes a turning point in Japan’s years-long efforts to curb suicides, which is still a widespread problem in a nation that has spent decades in the economic doldrums. The revision is slated to take effect in April.

“I believe this is a landmark amendment and a huge step forward,” said Yasuyuki Shimizu, who runs Lifelink, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization aimed at preventing suicides.

In an unprecedented move, the revised law obliges all municipalities to hammer out concrete action plans to address suicide problems in their own regions.

It also defined the government’s responsibility to subsidize anti-suicide projects undertaken by municipalities based on these plans and to take steps to help universities nurture professionals versed in suicide prevention.

The amendment is the brainchild of Shimizu, who last May submitted proposals to a cross-party group of lawmakers charged with combating suicide and has since strenuously lobbied for the revision.

Shimizu said he was spurred into action by what he called a gradual waning of public interest in the suicide problem amid a decline in recent years in the number of people killing themselves.

National Police Agency statistics show 24,025 people killed themselves in 2015, marking the sixth consecutive year-on-year drop.

This compares with 32,863 in 1998, when Japan witnessed a surge in suicides, mostly among middle-aged men, due to joblessness linked to the bankruptcies of corporate behemoths such as securities company Yamaichi Securities Co. and Hokkaido Takushoku Bank a year before.

After that, the figure continued to hover above the 30,000 threshold for more than 10 years, before falling below it in 2012.

But the recent decline shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to grow complacent, Shimizu says.

A 2014 World Health Organization report found that Japan’s suicide rate — or the number of people who killed themselves per 100,000 population — remained one of the highest among industrialized nations, at 18.5 percent in 2012. This compares with 12.1 percent in the United States, 7.8 percent in China, 6.2 percent in the United Kingdom and 28.9 percent in South Korea.

In few other countries does joblessness trigger suicide so easily as in Japan, Shimizu said, where being a part of a corporate organization is seen as essential to one’s survival.

For one thing, he said, people rely so much on their employers to provide social security that they feel helpless once they lose their job. Finding another job can be hard for people accustomed to the lifelong employment system, with its low labor mobility.

“In Japan, it’s often a case that once you’re fired or your business has failed, a second chance is very unlikely. And that single failure easily endangers your livelihood or life,” Shimizu said.

The fact that few people in Japan seek solace in religion, he added, has left people particularly vulnerable to adversity, including overwork, bullying and stress related to caring for aging parents.

Shizimu, however, said the revised law will revamp Japan’s effort to rein in suicides.

Under the new obligations on municipalities, they will be required to map out suicide-prevention plans that clarify specific goals within their departments to be achieved by a specified deadline. At the same time, it aims to foster cross-departmental cooperation — a hopeful development given that suicides are often the result of multiple factors, including poverty, domestic abuse and deteriorating health.

“Over the years, some municipalities have been very active in trying to prevent suicides, while others have not. As a result, the level of anti-suicide support you can get now differs significantly depending on where you happen to live, and sometimes that difference is a matter of life or death,” Shimizu said.

Adachi Ward in Tokyo, for example, earned notoriety in 2006 as home to the largest annual number of suicides among the 23 wards in the capital.

Upon further inspection, the ward found in 2008 that 1,616 residents took their lives in the period between 1998 and 2007 for reasons such as financial difficulties and ill health — equivalent to the entire population of one of its towns.

These revelations prompted a drastic overhaul in its anti-suicide effort in 2008, marking the start of a raft of preventive initiatives that are in place today.

Among these, it periodically organizes free counseling services in places that include Hello Work job-placement agencies and assigns “personal supporters” to those particularly feared at high risk of suicide to help them get back on their feet, such as by accompanying them to a doctor and assisting their efforts to find a job and rent an apartment.

As a result, the annual number of suicides in 2013 stood at 148 in the ward, down 23.3 percent from the peak 193 in 1998, compared with a 4.7 percent decrease in the whole of Tokyo during the same period.

“In many cases, those who committed suicide are those who desperately wanted to live. They decided to kill themselves because they couldn’t live the way they wanted,” Adachi official Yuko Baba, chief of the Mental and Physical Health Promotion Section, said.

A Lifelink survey found that the majority of those who killed themselves had visited a consultative institution for help before committing suicide. The implication is that they had harbored a wish to live.

“So that’s why we do what we do — even though it makes us look a little too pushy,” Baba said.