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Not for the first time, members of the Japanese public seem to be proving the experts wrong by their behavior. It is no longer merely a provocative social phenomenon, however, when the means by which they choose to do so is suicide. According to a new report from the National Police Agency, 33,048 Japanese took their own lives in 1999, the second consecutive year in which suicides were at a record high. Yet for some years analysts have insisted that Japan’s suicide rate is not as high as many people think and actually falls somewhere between the high rates of northern European countries and the low ones of Africa, Latin America and elsewhere in Asia.

It is cynical and callous to say, as some unsympathetic observers have, that the new high represents only an increase of 185 self-inflicted deaths compared with the previous year. The costs of this social tragedy for both those who killed themselves and those they left behind are so great they cannot be diminished by such unfeeling reactions. Shrugging it off on the grounds that, after all, Japan traditionally has never looked down on suicide, does nothing to help achieve a solution.

Worries over ill health are always a major contributing factor in the number of suicides reported. Nearly half of those who took their lives last year, did so for that reason. And yet, their number actually declined slightly from 1998 and could be reduced even further if more attention was given to timely intervention by qualified medical and psychological counselors. But early improvement seems unlikely given today’s overburdened health-care system, and the stigma that still attaches to those who seek such counseling.

In clear testimony that the job situation remains bleak for many in this country, the unemployed made up the largest single group of those who took their lives last year: 15,467 lives wasted, or 46.8 percent of the total. Company bankruptcies and business failures among the self-employed were other prominent reasons, yet few lifelines are available to assist such desperate individuals. Nongovernmental organizations and informal groupings of salaried workers are trying to help with periodic telephone hotline services that are useful as far as they go, but they only scratch the surface of the need that exists.

The other details in a breakdown of the suicide figures tell a sobering story given continuing official pronouncements that the nation’s economy is finally getting back on track. Nearly three out of 10 suicides in 1998 were attributable to job loss or debt worries, an increase of 11.6 percent. Suicides by men accounted for more than 71.1 percent of the total, more than in 1998, and close to 41.3 percent of those instances were by men in their 40s and 50s. Over 20 percent of the self-inflicted deaths could be blamed on diminishing quality of life and other problems related to corporate restructuring, a considerable increase.

There are a few hopeful signs in this depressing array of statistics. Suicides by women, always fewer than those by men, were down by 3.2 percent. And although people aged 60 and older still accounted for the greatest number of self-inflicted deaths, their total decreased by the same encouraging 3.2 percent. Suicides were also down — by as much 6.4 percent — among young people 19 years old and under, an age group in which the taking of one’s own life was especially common in earlier years.

Also in decline were cases of suicide stemming from family or marital problems, or from broken or unrequited love affairs. Any decrease in plural suicides — more correctly, homicide-suicide when participation by all the parties, especially children, is not voluntary — must be welcomed. This crime has a long history in popular Japanese culture, especially in the case of love-suicides in stage plays and romantic novels. Some experts believe this contributes to its continuation today.

The police agency suicide survey, which began in 1978, only tallies the reported total of all instances of self-inflicted death in a given year. It does not propose solutions, as a separate survey conducted by the Health and Welfare Ministry usually does. If budgets have to be cut and expenses trimmed, counseling services and other forms of assistance with work and personal problems should not be curtailed. The growing need for psychological help among today’s increasingly stressed-out office workers is obvious enough from a survey of 4,000 men and women employees just released by a research institute. It found more than 5 percent of those responding admit to having entertained thoughts of suicide.

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