The Leading Factors of Suicides in Japan between 1998 to 2011

Powerpoint PresentationApril, 2015

The Leading Factors of Suicides in Japan between 1998 to 2011

Suicide is one of the biggest issues of concern to Japanese society. The elevated suicide rates are creating a significant social issue not only in Japan but worldwide, posing a serious and urgent challenge. From 1998 to 2011, suicide has been on the increase in proportion to the total number of deaths. According to the National Policy Agency, since the year 2000, the number of people committing suicide has increased to a very high rate reaching 35,000 suicides in 2003. The leading factors behind this increase in suicide rates are believed to be health issues, including both physical and mental issues, economic problems, and family issues. Since 2011, the number of suicides, however, has declined relatively to the past. This paper is going to focus on the sharp increase in the total number of suicides, the fact that the annual number of suicides has remained at a constant level of 30,000 for more than ten years since 1998, and the gradual increase in younger suicide victims over the years. Literately based, it will explain in detail the leading factors behind high suicide rates among the middle-aged population in Japan between the years 1998 to 2011 and what contributed to a decline in the number since 2011. The focus on this specific age group of middle aged people, 15 to 34, is because they were more vulnerable to suicide than any other age groups. Exploring this topic would be an added value to the study of Asian cultures as it examines the leading factors behind suicide in Japan and discusses one of the biggest concerns Japanese society had and is still facing today.

It is effective to analyze trends in suicide rates after the sharp increase from 1998. It has been proven that age differences have affected suicide rates in Japan. Suicide, jisatsu, in Japanese, has become a major problem in Japan during the time between 1998 and 2011. According to the Overview of Suicide in 2008 published by the National Police Agency in May 2009, the total number of suicide victims in  2008 was 32,249.

The graph includes the number of suicide victims increased sharply in Japan from 1998 to 1999, and thereafter over 30,000 people killed themselves every year for 11 years in a raw. In other words, approximately 90 people died from suicide every day for over ten years. To be more specific, according to the Gender Paradox in Suicide, men rates are higher. Canetto (1990:19) explains how important is the study of gender ratio in suicide cases, especially in Japan. She asserted that male’s rates of suicide tend to be higher than that of women due to many factors, including social pressure and expectations. Japan comes third after the USA and Australia with a gender ratio of 2.7 exceeding only South Korea with a ratio of 1.8.

As it can be seen in figure 2, gender ratio of suicide rates vary across aged groups. The differences were considerable in the young (age range: 20-29 years) with a gender ratio of 2.23; 2.07–2.40 and they were not prominent in the older groups. Moreover, the male to female ratio of suicide rates for people in their twenties, tend to increase with age, reaching 3.9 in Japan. By contrast, in people in their fifties and seventies, the ratio tends to decrease with age.  In addition, it has been proven that age differences affected the increase in suicide rates. Graph 3 shows the breakdown of the growth rate of the number of suicide victims from 1998 to 2007 by age group. Kota Mori (2010: 81) explains how suicide rate for middle-aged people had played a central role in the increase of suicide, contributed negatively, subduing the overall number and rate of suicide. That is why the focus of this paper specified its interest on middle-aged group, as they are more prone to suicide. Suicide trends in Japan has three characteristics, which is the sharp increase in the total numbers since 1998, the fact that the annual number of suicide has remained at a constant level of 30,000 for the more than ten years since 1998, and the gradual increase in younger suicides victims over the years (Chen et al 2009b). Suicide in Japan has been treated as a problem mainly caused by economic problems, health and family issues. Based on the report by the National Police Agency, the causes or motives of suicide were identified for about 23,000 out of the 32,249 suicide victims in 2008. The most common cause was health problems for about 15,000 victims, followed by financial or life-related problems (job problems), and family problems (23). On the 2008 White Paper on Suicide, it is mentioned that the causes for suicide were not limited to mental problems, but involve various risk factors, and it is highly possible that the socioeconomic structure in itself is part of the problem that generates such risk factors. These include contentions within the family, debts, physical illness, poverty, working environment, and unemployment. This indicates how economy in most cases lead to health and family issues. The White Paper on Suicide points out that each victim has four risk factors on average, and these factors formed a chain that led him/her to commit suicide. In reality, health problems and depression are considered to be at the very final stages leading to suicide, and socioeconomic problems that drive a person to commit suicide often to be hidden.

Experts in Japan believe that the awfully high figure of suicides is due to the economic downturn. Since the early 1990s when the asset bubble burst, Japan has suffered a slow and even negative growth coupled with price deflation. Economic statistics remain gloomy, and more importantly, the nation’s mood (both consumers and producers) has become pessimistic. Asset prices in the real estate and stock markets inflated, creating one of the biggest financial bubbles in history. Real estate prices also plummeted during the recession—by 80 percent from 1991 to 1998 (Herbener 1999). Real GDP during the 1990s stagnated, rising only from 428,826 billion yen in 1990 to 469,480 billion yen by the end of 2000. Growth has been negative since 1998. The unemployment rate rose from 2.1 percent in 1991 to 4.7 percent at the end of 2000. Although the unemployment rate may seem low by international standards, the rise to 4.7 percent is significant in Japan, given the cultural and historical precedent of lifetime employment and given that it was never above 2.8 percent in the 1980s. The official unemployment rate is also biased downward because the Japanese government offers “employment adjustment subsidies” to companies that maintain employees as “window sitters” (Herbener 1999). Japanese companies have laid off large numbers of employees as the economy has worsened. Medium-sized companies once relied on larger companies for orders, yet business has now dried up. Families are feeling the change, and homelessness has begun to rise. A strong correlation between the unemployment rate and the suicide rate has been observed in Japan during that period, which suggests that public and private safety nets against unemployment were not functioning well.

According to the Ministry of Health, unemployment rates for people aged 20 or over in all industries are shows. By age group, for both men and women, the overall unemployment rates among those aged between 15 and 25 and those ages between 25 and 40 continued to rise from 1990 to 2003, and reached 10.1% and 7.1% respectively, in July 2009 (see figure 3 below). Such an increase in the unemployment rate and the number of young people without jobs, and decreased self-employed workers and small and medium-sized enterprises were major contributors to increased suicide rates since the 1990s. Unemployment does not only causes difficulties in the short-term living environment but also increases uncertainties over income that preclude a clear future forecast and creates a decline in lifetime income (Suzuki 2008).In reality, many empirical studies have demonstrated a correlation between high unemployment rates and high suicide rates (Platt 1984; Chen et al. 2012; Sawada and Sugano 2009). Figure 4 shows correlation between the unemployment rates and suicide rate that is very high in Japan.

Figure 4

This shows that there is a strong negative correlation between available job openings and suicides. Moreover, there is a strong correlation between the number of bankruptcies of small companies and suicides. After the financial crisis that happened in 1998, the Bank of Japan conducted a Short-Term Economic Statistical Survey of Enterprises in Japan.

Figure 5

Figure 5 shows the result obtained, the first quarter of 1998, the index showed a dramatic drop, which reflects the deterioration of debt problems caused by the credit crunch and credit withdrawal. Therefore, the strong correlation between unemployment, corporate bankruptcy, and increased suicides can be clearly observed. Furthermore, one of the key factors of suicide in japan is due to overwork. Karo jistasu, or overwork suicide, refers to the suicide of people who are driven by excessive work to take their own lives (Kitanaka 1970: 1). It has been well documented that some middle-aged workers in Japan are committing suicide in part due to work-related stress as well as the economic recession. The lack of protections by labor laws showed to be contributing to the high suicide rates. Although the actual number of Japanese who commit overwork suicide is small, its importance lies in its political and symbolic impact. Increased awareness about overwork suicide heightened in the year 2000 when the Japanese Supreme Court ordered a large Japanese company to compensate the family of a deceased man who allegedly committed suicide because of long and excessive overwork. After this precedent setting verdict, there were several similar legal outcomes that eventually legitimized the concept of overwork suicide. Hence, the concept of social causality of suicide has been promoted to confront the suicide crisis.

The economic difficulties have posed a range of health issues, both mental and physical, to middle aged Japanese, putting them at further rick of suicide. Health issue is a key factor behind high suicide rates in Japan.

Figure 6

According to figure 6, health problems are the number one motive behind suicides in Japan between 1998 and 2011. Back at that time, suicide considered to be one of the three leading causes of death among people aged 15-34 years. This fact might be still happeneing today. Health problems were cited as the main factor in 15,000 suicides, significantly leading all other causes. Among the 15,000 victims who committed suicide because of health problems, for the largest number, the reason was depression (utsubyo). Table 7 shows the breakdown of contribution ratios by motive among the rate of increase. Out of the 34.73% increase, 12.75% of suicides were due to health problems and 10.26% were due to financial or life-related problems. This shows that the most common direct cause of suicide in Japan is depression, but at the same time, the significant contribution ratio of financial or life-related problems, such as unemployment, debt, poverty, and working environment, are hidden factors behind depression. Furthermore, unemployment is often associated with mental or physical disorders, which increases the risk of suicide in a complex and serious manner.

Table 7

Family problems are also a result of economic downturn and bad working environment causing problems with depression, having an impact on family dynamics, which compound to make matters even worse for the individual in distress, thereby causing suicide. Family problems are always underestimated and not taken seriously. Middle aged population in Japan is more prone to commit suicide than any other age group (assuming they are all married, or still living with their families). Many would take their own lives because they cannot feed their family, which is a result of economic downturn. Similarity, the pressure might be mental as Japanese workers tend to have a high sense of responsibility toward their work and families as well which creates a tension being under pressure from both family and work place. Moreover, the uprising of those middle aged individuals within their families and the lack of strong ties and trust may affect their psychological state. There are approximately one in every 40 people has lost a family member due to suicide in Japan. Chen et al. (2009: 98) explains how individuals, especially in their middle ages, will be more prone to suicide if a member of their family has committed a suicide. This would increase the feeling of depression and anxiety and would have a high probability to commit suicide. In addition, annual suicide rates and in men and women correlated significantly with the annual divorce rate. Table 8 shows the correlation of annual divorce rates and suicide rates from 1992 to 2004. The American Journal of Medicine provided this table after a study of all divorce and suicide rates that happened on the same year. The result was a significant correlation of divorce and suicide rates. This shows that having problems within the family would lead to a high suicide rates. Therefore, the problematic structure of the family and depressing environment were believed to be one of the highest motives of suicide together with economic and health issues. The study of divorce and marriage rates is important, especially in the Japanese society, since creating a family and being a member of a family tend to facilitate the integration of an individual into society. Utah University have conducted a study that suppose that if the divorce rate is higher or the marriage rate is lower in one society than in others, it could cause a weakening of social integration and therefore, trigger higher suicide rates (8). In this context, Kim et al. (2011) examined correlation coefficients between divorce rates and suicide rates in Japan. According to the results, there are strong relationship between divorce rates and suicide affect men more than women; however, in general, they have strong relationship with high suicide rates.

Japan has a relatively high suicide rates, but the number of suicides has been    declining under 30,000 for three consecutive years since 2011 although the population of Japan decreased over the same period. The annual number of suicides in Japan, especially those of middle aged, has fallen below the 30,000 level for the first time in 15 years, the National Police Agency announced. In 2012, 27,766 people committed suicide, a decrease of 2,885 or 9.4 percent from 2011 and falling to a level below 30,000 for the first time since 1997 (Japan Times).

Table 7

As it can be seen in table 7, suicide has been declining since 2011. While suicide is still far and away the leading cause of death among youths in Japan, that statistic actually is not as scary as it seems on the surface; with Japan’s low rate of violent crime and death by natural causes unsurprisingly low in that age group, the numbers speak more to Japan’s overall safety than to any kind of suicide trend. The problem of suicide, however, is still very important to discuss and dangerous to neglect. Since 2011, the decline of suicide rates was due to the wide recognition of depression in the Japanese society beginning of the year 2000s. Kitanaka (1970 :2) explained in her article Depression In Japan, how psychiatry have played a key role in the process of curing depression or overwork (Karo utsubyo) which was in most cases considered number one reason leading to suicide. Therefore, the most common tactic to solve the suicide problem is to treat the underlying psychiatric disturbance using medication and psychotherapy. In recent years, the increasing prescribing of anti-depressants appears to have resulted in a decline in suicide rates (Isacsson 2000). In addition, effective psychotherapies have been devised for suicidal individuals and Japan now have networks of telephone crisis centers, functioning twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for individuals to call during times when they feel depressed. However, ( Joseph Richman: 1986) explain that since interpersonal factors are often important to Japanese, family therapy is perhaps the most appropriate format for psychotherapy for suicidal individuals.Therefore, unless measures to eliminate such risk factors are taken along with treatment for depression, efforts to prevent suicide could be less than effective. Since 2011, the declining rates of suicides are showing a good sign as long as they continue to decline.

To conclude, it can be seen how economic, health, and family issues have come together to affect suicide rates in Japan between 1998 and 2011, especially among the middle aged group. It has been proven that economic difficulties such as unemployment and rescissions some individuals are facing, leads both directly and indirectly to affect health and family factor. Economically, there was a huge rise in the price of the necessities of life, which caused financial problems to Japanese workers. Family issues such as high divorce rates and difficulty in uprising, are increasing and becoming a source of depression for many people. Health issues, both physical and mental, are also proved to be contributors to the issue as they lead to depression. The number of suicide cases, however, has been decreasing since 2011 due to recognition of depression and the help of psychiatry, which showed a good sign. Suicide rates will continue to decline as long as strategies to prevent it continued and showed a great effect to solve this huge problem (2907).

Works Cited

A Demographic Evaluation of Increasing Rates of Suicide Mortality in Japan and South Korea,

      Utah University. 2011. Print.

How is Suicide Different in Japan?, Joe Chen, Yun Cheong Choi, Kota Mori,

                Yasuyuki Sawada, Saki Sugano, University of Tokyo, Yonsei University. Japan Labor

                 Review. November 2007. Print.

Isacsson, G. ( 2000) Suicide prevention — a medical breakthrough? Acta Psychiatrica

               Scandinavica, 102, 113-117.Print.

Joint Liability Borrowing and Suicide, Chen, Joe, Yun Jeong Choi and Yasuyuki Sawada, CIRJE

         Discussion Paper F-534, University of Tokyo, December 2009.

Joseph Richman , Family therapy for suicidal people, Human Sciences Press, 1981. Print.

Jeffry M. Herbener, Explaining Japan’s Recession. 1998. Print.

Kitanaka, Junko (2008) Diagnosing suicides of resolve: psychiatric practice in contemporary

               Japan. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 32: 152-176.

Kitanaka Junko. A History of Suicide in the Modern World: International Perspectives. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press; 2008. Questioning the suicide of resolve: medico-legal disputes regarding “overwork suicide” in twentieth-century Japan.

Kitanaka, Junko (2012) Depression in Japan: psychiatric cures for a society in distress.

               Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Yutaka, Motohashi, Suicide in Japan, Department of Public Health, Akita University Graduate

            School of Medicine, Volume 379, Issue 9823, 7-13 April 2012, Pages 1282-1284. Japan.

Ministry of Health

Portzky, G. and van Heeringen, K. (2010) Suicide, in Principles of Social Psychiatry, Second

             Edition (eds C. Morgan and D. Bhugra), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi:


Recession, Unemployment, and Suicide in Japan, Joe Chen, Yun Cheong Choi, Kota Mori,

                Yasuyuki Sawada, Saki Sugano, University of Tokyo, Yonsei University. Japan Labor

                 Review. Vol.9, no. 2. 75-92, 2012. Print.

Situation of suicide in the year 1998 Document

The National Police Agency in Japan- 2008

The White Paper on Suicide in Japan-2008

The Bank of Japan

The National Institute of Mental Health

The Japan Times

Those who are left behind” An estimate of the number of family members of suicide

          Victims in Japan. Social Indicators Rearach, 94 (3):535-44. 2009. Print.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *