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.

This meant the country’s suicide rate, or the number of suicides per 100,000 people, slipped to a record-low 15.8, bringing the nation a step closer to its goal of reducing the rates to 13.0, a level equivalent to that of many other developed countries, by 2026.

Nonaka cited economic recovery and concerted efforts led by the government to rein in the number of suicides as possible reasons behind the recent decline, although the official said singling out specific factors is difficult.

“It’s true that we have seen a decrease over the past decade, but the fact still remains that around 20,000 are taking their lives each year. We need to face this reality as we press ahead with suicide prevention campaigns,” Nonaka said.

Japan witnessed a surge in suicides in 1998, when unemployment linked to the bankruptcies of corporate behemoths such as securities firm Yamaichi Securities Co. and the Hokkaido Takushoku Bank led to many middle-aged men taking their lives. The number peaked in 2003 at 34,427 and has fallen every year since 2009.

Yasuyuki Shimizu, who runs Lifelink, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization aimed at preventing suicides, said the 2006 enactment of a landmark anti-suicide law triggered the overall trend of declines. The law underwent its first revision in 2016 to oblige municipalities to map out concrete plans of action to tackle suicide problems in their own regions.

Despite the recent trend, Shimizu echoed Nonaka in cautioning against complacency.

“The fact that 20,000 people still die by suicide a year is a very unusual situation and is nothing to be optimistic about,” he said.

“Municipalities should do more to help their residents live their lives, and the government should support such policies more robustly,” he said.

Japan may have witnessed a general decline in the number of suicides, but there is one demographic that has proven to be an outlier: youth.

While almost all age groups have seen their suicide rates steadfastly diminish, the figure has remained stubbornly flat for those under 20 over the past decade, health ministry statistics show.

Separate ministry data also shows suicide became the top cause of death for those age 10 to 14 and those age 15 to 19 in 2017, accounting for 22.9 percent and 39.6 percent of deaths, respectively. In 2018, suicide was the top cause of death for all demographic groupings from age 15 to 39.

“Japan is the only Group of Seven nation where the biggest cause of death for those age 15 to 34 is suicide,” the ministry’s white paper said.

Shimizu, too, voiced concerns over the alarming rate at which young people are killing themselves. He stressed the importance of measures such as strengthening support programs for young people through social media and teaching them to acquire necessary “life skills” to obtain outside help.

“Preventing suicides of the young is an issue of utmost urgency,” he said.

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