As Japan’s schools reopened Friday after the summer holidays, a day when suicides often spike, celebrities reached out to at-risk children and one Tokyo zoo offered refuge to nervous pupils to address the mental health crisis.
For some children, the thought of returning to school sends stress levels soaring as they battle fears ranging from schoolyard bullies to doing poorly on exams.
“Going back to school creates anxiety,” said Kuniyasu Hiraiwa, representative director of AfterSchool, a nonprofit organization that helps parents detect early warning signs in children.
Japan — which places huge emphasis on academic success — has the highest suicide rate among the Group of Seven industrialized nations, with more than 20,000 people taking their own lives annually.
While the suicide rate overall has been declining since it peaked in 2003, that is not the case among young adults starting their first jobs or among schoolchildren.
Some 500 Japanese under 20 kill themselves each year. The teen suicide rate on Sept. 1 tends to be around three times higher than any other day of the year.
This week, popular actress Shoko Nakagawa tweeted the message “Never die. Live,” while NHK created the hashtag “On the night of August 31st” to draw attention to the problem.
Singer YuYu Horun, who said he tried to kill himself in primary school, now reaches out to adolescents who feel alienated at home.
“I receive daily emails or letters from teenagers who express the urge to kill themselves or have already made attempts,” he said.
“Many children do not feel love from parents who often do not give it because they did not get it themselves. In many families, communication is insufficient.”
Some libraries are urging frightened children to take refuge behind their doors, while Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo said at-risk students should be allowed to skip the first day of school.
Tweeting a picture of its tapirs, the zoo said scared kids can run away without asking permission — just like animals do when confronted with danger.
“If there’s no place to escape, come to the zoo,” it tweeted.
Authorities have ramped up their vigilance, urging schools to be alert for danger signs. The government set up a 24-hour telephone counseling service that children or parents can call for assistance.
“I urge them to talk to someone — family, school teachers, friends or anyone — about their problems,” education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said Friday.
“If it’s hard to talk to people around them, I want them to consult with the education ministry’s service.”
Experts say much more needs to be done to engage adolescents and pre-teens so they do not fall victim to suicide.
“The proportion is not high, but teen suicide should not be looked at from a statistical point of view, it should be treated as a social issue,” said Yutaka Motohashi, director of the government-affiliated Japan Support Center for Suicide Countermeasures.
“Children need to be taught how to cope with everyday stress . . . and have a trusted adult to talk to when they have a problem.”
Even recent graduates are at risk when they enter the workforce for the first time. There is huge pressure to get a job with a top company and do well, as failing at your first position is seen as life-changing in this ultra-competitive society.
“In Japan, for social and cultural reasons, it is difficult to give up a job to go and look for another” if the first one is too hard, Motohashi said.
Whatever their age, there are usually warnings signs from suicidal people, especially in the age of social media.
“They do searches with keywords like ‘I want to die’ or ‘a gentle death,’ before they attempt suicide,” Horun said.
“They send various SOS messages which unfortunately often go unnoticed by others. They have trouble asking for help.”