When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other localities on April 7, some argued it was too late. Countries that had gotten their COVID-19 infection numbers under control had done so by calling for urgent measures, including lockdowns, before those numbers started rising dramatically. Some media outlets were suggesting that Japan, like the United States and the United Kingdom, had waited too long, and would now have to face a potential medical disaster it was not prepared for.
The reason for the government’s relative lax approach was a fear that the economy would be irreparably damaged if businesses were forced to suspend operations, but many claim that is the price you have to pay to save lives. Perhaps predictably, the financial press has expressed misgivings about strong measures to stem the tide of the epidemic and, in discussing the matter, hit on a subject that other media wouldn’t touch: suicide.
The March 31 online edition of the business magazine Toyo Keizai reported on the increase in railway-related deaths since the advent of the coronavirus-related economic slowdown. Noting that the Nikkei stock average lost more than 7,000 points since January and job offers for some new graduates had been canceled, Toyo Keizai said the recent increase in deaths on railway lines in Japan was “conspicuous.” Between March 16 and 22, more than 30 suicides were registered. On March 18, seven occurred in a single day and, on March 18 and 19, three people died on the JR Kobe Line alone. According to the transport ministry, there was an average of almost two railway-related deaths a day throughout Japan that were officially designated as suicides in 2018, so the March numbers were “unusually high,” perhaps reflecting an increase in financial anxiety.
The matter was explained in more detail by editor Tatsuo Yamakawa in the April 2 issue of Nikkei Business. He essentially says that even if a state of emergency manages to check the number of deaths due to the virus, if the suicide rate rises as a result, can we really say we’re “winning the battle”?
According to statistics cited by Yamakawa, the number of annual suicides in Japan rises as unemployment increases. The year 2003 saw the highest number of suicides “linked to lower living standards” — 8,897. In that year, the unemployment rate reached 5.3 percent. As unemployment subsequently dropped, so did the number of suicides, but then the 2008 recession happened, and suicide numbers rose again. The number specifically pegged to financial worries was 8,377 in 2009, when the unemployment rate had risen to 5.1 percent.
After the second Abe administration formed in December 2012, the unemployment rate steadily dropped, as did the number of suicides. Last year, the unemployment rate was 2.4 percent and the government counted 3,395 suicides associated with finances, or about 5,000 fewer than in 2003. So, according to Yamakawa, when unemployment rises by 1 percentage point, you can expect the number of annual suicides to rise by between 1,000 and 2,000. As of March 30, the number of deaths from the coronavirus in Japan, not counting those associated with the Diamond Princess cruise ship, was 59.
Data Essay, a blog by education sociologist Toshihiko Maita dedicated to crunching numbers, posted a similarly themed report on March 30 that widened the frame of the argument to include other countries, mainly focusing on Spain, which tends to have higher unemployment and has also seen high mortality rates from the coronavirus. Statistically, Japan has the highest correlation between suicides and unemployment. Between 1991 and 2015, Japan’s maximum unemployment rate was around 5 percent, while Spain’s was more than 20 percent. During that period, Japan’s suicide rate, always higher than Spain’s, fluctuated in direct proportion to the unemployment rate, while Spain’s remained the same despite fluctuations in unemployment. Looking at other countries, the United States, which has seen a rise in suicides over the past decade or so among white men, is third to Japan in terms of correlation between the economy and suicide. However, Data Essay also shows how statistics for South Korea, which has a higher overall suicide rate than Japan, display a much lower correlation between suicide and financial security.
It should be noted that Yamakawa does not advocate business as usual during the current crisis in his essay. He urges the government to become more proactive in keeping workers and small businesses afloat in order to stave off the kind of despair that could lead to more cases of suicide. So far, the government has been grudging with the kind of direct financial support that has been implemented in other countries.
An editorial in the April 6 issue of the Tokyo Shimbun goes further, saying that major domestic companies, especially those that have accumulated large reserves of cash, should step up and guarantee the livelihoods of suppliers, usually small and medium-sized companies, which are at greater risk of insolvency during a recession. Major companies can also afford to send staff home temporarily with pay so as to flatten the infection curve more quickly.
Most at risk are nonregular employees, which accounted for 38.3 percent of all workers in 2019. Unlike regular employees, they are not all protected by the law and may not be eligible for unemployment insurance, which is why Tokyo Shimbun urges the government to stop distinguishing between regular and nonregular workers. Companies that hire laid-off or furloughed workers should be rewarded with tax incentives. Because companies are not compelled to protect all their workers during severe economic downturns, it is up to the government to provide ongoing support for them, and not just handouts.
“Losing a job means not just losing income,” the editorial says. “It also means losing one’s dignity” as a member of society. Like most general media outlets, Tokyo Shimbun does not mention the word “suicide,” probably in deference to guidelines from the World Health Organization, which has called on media in all countries to restrict their coverage of suicide so as not to exacerbate the situation among those who are vulnerable.