The number of suicides recorded in Japan stood at 19,959 last year, falling below the 20,000 mark for the first time since authorities began keeping such records in 1978, according to preliminary figures released Friday by the health ministry.

There is still a possibility that final tallies, which will be published in March, will show a slight increase to above 20,000, the ministry said. But even so, it's possible that the 2019 figure will represent an all-time low, breaking the mark set in 1981 of 20,434, according to ministry official Yoshindo Nonaka.

The ministry's figures show that 2019 marked a 10th consecutive year-on-year decrease in the number of suicides, down 881 people — or 4.2 percent — from a year earlier.