Over the last three years Japan has witnessed a steady, seemingly inexorable, rise in the national suicide rate. Many of these deaths are attributable to financial worries caused by the prolonged economic slowdown. It is well known that Japanese culture has never condemned the taking of one’s own life, especially when the reasons for doing so appear to be compelling. The suicide of famed literary critic and conservative commentator Jun Eto on Wednesday, apparently caused by depression over his wife’s death last fall and his own worsening health, is a case in point.

Such poignant examples in no way diminish the mounting social crisis reflected by the record number of suicides that occurred in 1998, which at 32,863 exceeded 30,000 for the first time ever, according to two separate official surveys. The previous record of 25,667 self-inflicted deaths was set in 1986, a recession year. Figures released this month by the National Police Agency show an increase in suicides of 35 percent over 1997, with those related to workplace difficulties up by as much as 50 percent. Some 20 percent of all suicides were associated with financial difficulties, a startling 70 percent rise over the previous year, even though problems related to illness continued to be the leading reason for people taking their own lives.

The NPA survey indicates that 23,013 men — a 40 percent increase — and 9,850 women — a rise of 24 percent — committed suicide last year. The overall total was more than three times the number of traffic fatalities — 9,211 — recorded in the same period. How many of these lives could have been saved with timely counseling and intervention? It seems fair to say that most of these people do not actually wish to die. Since government-sponsored and corporate counseling facilities are far from adequate and volunteer services, while dedicated, often are overwhelmed by the demands placed on them, however, family members, coworkers and business associates must learn to be alert to the signals that potential suicide victims often send.

In June the Health and Welfare Ministry released a separate nationwide survey that also showed more than 30,000 self-inflicted deaths occurred last year. The two reports disagree only in minor details, the NPA basing its figures on police investigations while the ministry uses the results of medical examiner’s reports. The police agency survey began in 1978, while official government suicide statistics were first compiled in 1882, during the Meiji period.

Vernacular press reports indicate that on average 90 Japanese are taking their lives somewhere in the nation each day. The cost to bereaved families, and to society in general, is high. Over 30 percent of the commuter and subway train delays that can inconvenience tens of thousands of passengers in the Tokyo metropolitan area during rush hours reportedly are caused by suicides, with the heavily traveled JR Chuo Line said to be experiencing at least one such incident every 10 days.

Both of the latest surveys make it painfully clear that men in their 40s and 50s, in what used to be considered the prime of life, are being especially affected. Many are the presidents of small companies or self-employed entrepreneurs suddenly faced with insurmountable debts. Many other find themselves the unprepared victims of corporate restructuring or downsizing at a time when they had expected to be financially secure, thanks to the lifetime employment system, after dedicating their entire careers to a single employer.

Recently announced government job-creation programs are woefully insufficient to the task at hand. While there are increasing indications of economic recovery on the horizon, they remain faint and likely to be too late to be of help to many of the men — and women — now turning to suicide to deal with problems that have overwhelmed them. More assistance must be forthcoming for such people, large numbers of whom made a major contribution to the nation’s postwar prosperity.

Greater efforts should be made at both the government and corporate levels to upgrade and increase the counseling services available. Equally if not more important is the urgent need for an effective campaign to remove the stigma that is still attached in this country to anyone who seeks professional assistance in dealing with mental and emotional difficulties. The well-being of the nation as a whole demands that Japan not be in the position of helplessly watching the suicide rate relentlessly rise year after year after year.

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