The Japanese government reports that for the 11th straight year the number of suicide deaths has exceeded 30,000. This may not be so surprising seeing as Japan has the highest suicide rate in the developed world. And now as the economy sinks deeper into recession as a consequence of the international financial and economic crisis, there is growing concern that more Japanese will take their lives.
Japan’s economy is shrinking at a fast pace, leaving many people in despair
At any given time, there are 320 volunteer operators answering calls at Inochino Denwa, a suicide prevention hotline that runs 24 hours a day all year long.
Nobuko Sago, the managing director of the service says, “We receive a constant number of phone calls, we are up to our limits. As soon as an operator hangs up from one call, they get another.”
On average, the hotline receives 27,000 calls a year. But Sago says that over the past few months, the reasons why callers are contemplating suicide have changed. Now people are distraught after losing their jobs.
Hit by slump
Japan has been severely hit by the global recession. Exports have slumped and corporations in the automotive and electronics industries have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers.
And there’s new data that might show a link between the firings and a rise in the suicide rate. For the first time, Japan’s National Police Agency has released month by month figures on suicide deaths. In January, there were 2,645 suicides here, a few hundred more than the same time last year.
Japan has long been at the top of the list of developed nations with a high suicide rate. The most recent data from the World Health Organization shows that in 2006 for every 100,000 deaths in Japan, 35 were self-inflicted. That’s about double the figure for Germany or the United States.
A social problem
Some analysts say it's because of a cultural difference. Japan unlike the West does not have any religious taboos regarding suicide.
But Jeff Kingston, who lectures at Temple University in Tokyo and is author of "Japan’s Quiet Transition", says he’s noticed that suicides tend to mirror the highs and lows of the economy. “I don’t buy the cultural argument, because the cultural argument doesn’t explain the sort of ups and downs very well. One of the reasons I think is key in Japan is the public health system doesn’t diagnose and treat mental health very well here", he says.
Kingston also believes that abusive alcohol consumption contributes to suicide’s prevalence in Japan today.
Calls for better health system
The government, Kingston warns, needs to improve the public health system, especially now as the economy worsens:
“In Japan, I think you have much greater insecurity, job insecurity, insecure families, you have rising divorce rates. The misery index has increased dramatically in Japan over the last 15 years, so I think for a lot of people these changes, this uncertainty, this insecurity is also contributing to the high rate in suicide.”
Nobuko Sago, at the suicide hotline, says these days it’s difficult to find staff to answer the calls.
Many people who call here direct their anger and frustration at the operators, Sago says. "This makes it a very hard time for our volunteers to keep working here."
And there may be more bad news with regard to the suicide rate to come: More job cuts are expected at the end of this month when contracts for temporary workers are set to expire.