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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

90 suicides a day spur Japan into action

The Japanese Government is calling for a complete national rethink about attitudes to suicide in an effort to unravel centuries of social pressure and tradition.

The practice, which claims more than 90 lives each day, should no longer be seen as “the honorable way out” but as an act of desperation and – perhaps – preventable misery.

The Government has published a “counter-suicide White Paper”, which sets out a nine-step plan to transform the way in which suicide is regarded and treated. Measures include training more counselors and expanding Samaritans-style telephone helplines.

The White Paper exposes the traditional approach in Japan of ignoring the issue altogether and presses for the kind of basic research into causes that is standard in most developed nations. It says that Japanese should know more about the causes of suicide and be better equipped to spot the signs of an impending attempt. There should be help for those who have survived an attempt. The paper notes that Monday is by far the most likely day of the week on which a co-worker or loved one may try to end it all.

Government sources told The Times that the document could be seen as evidence that, after decades of inaction, Japan had finally grown embarrassed by its extraordinarily high suicide rate, which stands at ninth in the world but is far ahead of any other developed nation. Japan is hoping to reduce its current rate – of about 32,000 suicides a year – by 20 per cent within the next decade.

Suicide rates used to rise when unemployment was higher and fall during more prosperous spells. The Government’s sudden alarm, though, arises from the apparent breaking of that cycle: Japan’s economy has recently experienced its longest run of expansion since the Second World War but the suicide rate has continued to rise during that time.

The White Paper comes as Japan is approaching its tenth successive year in which more than 30,000 people have taken their own lives. The statistic gives Japan a higher per-capita rate than nations blighted by civil war, desperate poverty or long periods of the year without sunlight.

The timing of the White Paper is also strongly linked to emerging trends in Japanese suicide that threaten to worsen the problem before it gets better. Phenomena such as “web suicides”, in which several strangers – usually in their twenties – meet on the internet and arrange to die together, have received plenty of media attention but, experts say, are only a tiny fraction of the problem.

Work-related causes for suicide have long dominated men’s suicide rates and experts believe that women between the ages of 25 and 45 may become increasingly vulnerable as they enter the workforce in greater numbers and rise to positions of greater seniority and stress. Studies are also likely to be made of the “March problem”, the traditional spike in suicides in March that coincides with university entrance examinations and the main job-hunting season.

Means to an end

- A Japanese legend relates the mass suicide of the 47 samurai. After avenging their master’s death they committed ritual suicide at his graveside

- In 1970 the writer Yukio Mishima led a revolt and urged the Army to overthrow the Government. He then committed hara-kiri in front of an audience of 800

- In 1993 author Wataru Tsurumi published The Complete Manual of Suicide, which sold 1 million copies

- In 2001 railway stations in Japan introduced mirrors to deter suicide attempts by showing victims their own face before they jump

- Every February the Fuji-Yoshida police scour the Aokigahara woods at the base of Mount Fuji for bodies of suicide victims

Source: Times research

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