Tokyo begins to heed cry for help

Commuters catching a train at Ogikubo, a western Tokyo suburb, probably no longer notice the large mirrors, 2m wide and 1.2m high, placed strategically on the station platform. The idea is to deter suicides on the basis that people may be less likely to leap under a train if they see their own reflection.

JR East, which operates the Chuo Line, says it has not determined whether the mirrors have had any effect since their installation about five years ago. But the mere fact that it has experimented with such methods is indicative of how Japan is struggling to come to grips with its suicide crisis.

Last year, according to police records, 32,155 people – about 90 a day – took their own life, placing Japan at the wrong end of global suicide league tables. Among Group of Eight countries, only Russia does worse, with a rate of 39.4 per 100,000. Suicides in Japan, at 24.1 per 100,000, are much higher than in France, at 18.4, and three times more frequent than the UK and Italy. But why?

Academics have sometimes resorted to cultural explanations, contrasting the samurai code’s glorification of suicide as an honourable exit with Christianity’s prohibition. Yet from the 1960s to the mid-1990s, Japan’s suicide rate, though on the high side by international standards, was not off the scale as it is today.

The big change came in 1998, when companies started laying off thousands of employees, and the number of suicides leapt 35 per cent to 32,863.

“It’s clear this has something or other to do with the economy,” says John Campbell, a visiting professor at Tokyo university. “[1998] was a lousy year with a lot of lay-offs. The reason that Japan’s suicide rate looks high today is that a lot of middle-aged men have started killing themselves.” Last year, men over 40 made up about two-thirds of suicides.

The mystery is why the rate has not come down substantially after five years of economic recovery and a tight labour market in which there are now more jobs than jobseekers.

The Japanese media have concentrated on stories of school bullying and the internet, where some people have clicked their way to suicide pacts. But, tragic as these cases are, they are a tiny proportion of the total.

About 90 people arranged suicides on the internet last year, while 242, fewer than 1 per cent of the total, killed themselves because of school-related problems, according to police records. That leaves economic and health problems. Even if overall economic conditions have improved, a growing economic divide could mean there are as many desperate people with mounds of debts or little prospect of regaining their previous economic and social status, experts say. Economic and job-related problems accounted for about 9,000 suicides last year against 8,000 in 1998.

Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian studies at Temple University, says that, as Japan’s population ages, more people will kill themselves because of poor health – the reason for almost half last year’s suicides.

Hiroyuki Takahashi, policy director for suicide prevention in the cabinet office, agrees the government needs to do more, and this month, it set a goal of cutting suicides by a fifth. He points to a law to cap interest rates on consumer loans at 20 per cent – criticised by some for strangling economic growth and forcing people into the hands of loan sharks – as one measure that could help reduce debt-related suicides. He also points to the government’s emphasis on retraining for a “second chance” and more liberal personal bankruptcy laws designed to reduce stigma.

But Japan, he says, also needs more counselling for depressed people, treatment not covered by health insurance. Even if it were: “We simply don’t have enough psychiatrists,” he says, and budgetary constraints mean the problem is not likely to be solved quickly.

“National policies over the past 10 years have been a disaster,” Mr Kingston says. “People are not getting the counselling and therapy they need. It’s a public health problem that has been neglected too long.”

Unless that is addressed, he concludes, improving the suicide statistics will remain a matter of smoke – and mirrors.

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