Suicides and life expectancy in Japan

Last week Japan’s National Police Agency released a report that showed that last year, 31,042 Japanese committed suicide. This figure marked the fourth straight year that suicides in Japan had surpassed 30,000. To put these numbers into perspective, consider that during 1999 in the United States, 29,199 people committed suicide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, Japan has more suicides per year than the US, yet it’s population is less than half that of the States (127 million people in Japan vs. 288 million in the US).

Of the 31,042 suicides recorded by the National Police Agency, 6,845 of them were attributed to distress over economic problems brought on by Japan’s decade-long recession. 71% of all suicides last year were committed by males.

As Shigeo Masui recently opined in the Daily Yomiuri,

[Recent suicide figures are] in contrast to a decrease in the number of deaths from traffic accidents in recent years. The number of annual traffic deaths, which had continued to increase for many years, has dropped below 10,000.

Though suicides now total 30,000 annually and outnumber traffic deaths by three times, few people bother to squarely discuss suicides as an urgent matter of social concern. Suicides are instead overlooked and dismissed as isolated individual problems. Yet, the increase in the number of suicides signifies a protest against contemporary Japanese society.

I was reminded of this story by a seemingly unrelated item from the Associated Press a couple of days ago (available here at on how Japan’s life expectancy rates have reached new international heights, breaking records for the second year in a row. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry announced that Japanese women now have a life expectancy of 84.93 years, while Japanese men are expected to live to 78.07 years.

What jolted me a bit in this otherwise benign story, and what caused me to recall last week’s suicide rate story, was this throwaway paragraph:

Japanese have had the longest life expectancy for years, though suicides linked to the country’s economic stagnation caused the figures to decline in the late 1990s.

At the risk of being flippant when it is not my intention, it occurred to me that “life expectancy” could be read in another rather more downbeat way and I couldn’t help but wonder what each of those 31,042 suicides had expected out of life and how the realities must have been in such discordance with those expectations that they resorted to suicide. (As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Between the idea/And the reality/…/Falls the Shadow”.)

Last week, in its story about the suicide report, Japan Broadcasting Corp (NHK) ran a feature about one man in his early 30’s, and married for less than a year, who committed suicide last year because he could no longer put up with the amount of overtime he had to work at his company. This man worked an average of 90 hours per week, with seemingly no choice or option available to him other than to either continue toiling miserably or to end his life.

To cope with the post-bubble economic recession, Japanese companies have accelerated what’s euphemistically called “restructuring” (risutora in Japanese), or downsizing, so that now a job that may have once been done by five workers is now done by two. Through an unhealthy mixture of a mountainous workload, loyalty to the corporation (that in many cases has been a worker’s lifetime employer), and the sublimation of individualistic impulses for the betterment of the group (read: to company and to co-workers), many workers feel they have no choice but to agree to log long hours of overtime, some of which may actually be “donated” to the company and not compensated.

Japan’s Health Ministry has actually since 1987 kept statistics on the amount of deaths due to overwork, known as karoushi in Japanese. (In 2001, 143 such cases were recorded). One of the points of the above-mentioned NHK story was that because the man’s death was clearly a suicide (he left his wife a suicide note), it is not considered a karoushi case, and therefore his company is absolved from any complicity in his death.

There are other elements at work here besides a depressed economy and loyalty to the group/company, including the honored place that ritualized suicide has in Japanese history and the lack of shame that accompanies committing suicide in Japan as compared to the West. Writes Chika Watanabe in “Suicide and Modern Japan,”

Japan as a culture offers suicide as an option in life. The great influence of Buddhism in this country is reflected in the way Japanese people do not see life and death as separate.[…] For the Japanese, death has never been punishment, and suicide never a sin. Suicide was rather a dignified renouncing of the world in which they live, to compensate for a wrong-doing or to demonstrate their spiritual strength by showing total self-control in bringing about their own ends

Rather than bringing on shame and disgrace, suicide for many Japanese has been a way to avoid shame, and indeed of gaining honor. And, writes Watanabe, “suicide is a form of protest, indirect and thus the most powerful, for Japanese society would reject opinions directly voiced.”

I also cannot help wondering whether the stigma attached to psychotherapy by many Japanese plays a part in all this. In Masui’s Daily Yomiuri editorial, he paraphrases from an article by former Tokyo Institute of Psychiatry researcher Yoshitomo Takahashi:

[Takahashi] said middle-aged men’s suicides are closely related to depression but only 10 percent to 20 percent of them had received psychiatric treatment. Takahashi regretted that those suffering from depression are left unattended despite the availability of effective treatment.

For those 10 to 20 percent that seek treatment, one has to wonder how effective it is. As this 1995 article by Yutaka Ono, M.D. and Douglas Berger, M.D. points out, due to Japan’s national health insurance system, “the importance of psychological approaches such as psychotherapy tend to be neglected compared to that of more medically oriented procedures.” And because it’s in the doctors’ best interests to see as many patients as possible, coupled with Japan’s lack of practicing psychiatrists (only 8,000 in 1995; by contrast, in the year 2000 the United States had about 40,000 practicing psychiatrists), the treatment’s efficacy could be called into question.

In the end, the only thing we can be sure about those 31,042 Japanese who committed suicide last year is that they probably did so for 31,042 different reasons, and it’s the inability to answer the “Why?” question that probably troubles the survivors and the country at large most. How to prevent or curtail these suicides is an issue governmental ministries such as the Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry are looking into (the Ministry began a 3-year study last year to explore “multidimensional approaches to suicide prevention“).

Let’s hope their conclusions and suggested measures are a little more sensitive than those proposed by the East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) last year after a spate of suicide incidents at its Tokyo stations. According to a well-said Japan Times editorial from last year, the company planned to install huge mirrors (the thinking being that people would be less inclined to jump if others could see them), and paint crossings in bright colors to cheer up potentially suicidal commuters. Why? Because suicides are bad for business. They mess up train schedules (not to mention the fronts of trains) and piss off other commuters. Said a JR East spokesperson at the time, “a suicide delays train schedules” and produces “floods of angry phone calls.”

I have my doubts though about the Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry’s study. In the article linked above, it’s explained that among the 18-member study panel put together are architects who will be charged with determining “whether the designs of roofs and railway platforms can be altered to help prevent suicides”. Hmmn, surely that will get at the root causes.

9 Replies to “Suicides and life expectancy in Japan”

  1. i understand that families of the folks that throw themselves under the train ar charged for stoppage and cleanup – about a million yen. those that throw themselves off of buildings and inconvenience others are also have their familes charged. so i always wonder if that was part of too — for some, to choose to die that way, to hurt the family materially.

  2. This is really depressing, because it just reminds me of how silly people can get, they think suicide is the solution, but really life is!

  3. Reminds me of a distressing program that aired recently on TRIO called something like “Secret Life in Japan.” The program dealt with the large number of suicides in a national park. The elderly, the unemployed and the depressed simply walked deep into the park and never returned. There was a scene in which park employees and medical folk complained bitterly about the “inconvenience” of the suicides.

  4. Reminds me of a distressing program that aired recently on TRIO called something like “Secret Life in Japan.” The program dealt with the large number of suicides in a national park. The elderly, the unemployed and the depressed simply walked deep into the park and never returned. There was a scene in which park employees and medical folk complained bitterly about the “inconvenience” of the suicides.

  5. I want to die. I wish I had the dignity of the Japanese to just do it. My life is not worth living anymore….

  6. This is to Bryan. I would hope that no one would ever take advantage of a forum like this by joking about something like suicide. So Bryan, I’m going to respect your statement with all seriousness. There is something inherently dignified in the traditions of Japanese culture and history. I have a very bittersweet respect for those traditions. I have what might sound like a silly request. You sound like you have an interest or at least a respect for Japanese culture. There is a wonderfull novel written by Eiji Yoshikawa titled “Musashi”. It takes place during the 1600’s when suicide was obviously a very honerable option. It’s about a famous swordsman who, in a rigid system of social control, carved out his own path. And there in is why I mention this book. Though it is set within a culture of sacrifice of the self (to the common extent of killing oneself), it’s main character takes a brilliantly alternate look at the possibilities for his own destiny. It is a long book, but I ask the you seek out a copy and read it. Read every page. There are always other options, possibilities, and perspectives.

  7. Then what is the life expectancy. No where in the artical says the life expectancy. I have to have this by Thursday. ARGGGGGGGGGG!!!!!!!!!! I am doing a report on Japan and I have nothing. Not a thing not a thing.

  8. umm this is to “david”. I’m doing a report on Japan too and it actually DOES say the life expectancy if you actually READ the whole thing… lol this is funny because i know im never going to go on this website again in my life! HAHAHA

  9. oops lol i just realized my other commment was to kelsey not david ahahahaha

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