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Suicides in Japan reach a record high

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 02 September 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:528
  1. Joe Lamar
  1. Tokyo

    A record number of people committed suicide in Japan last year, largely as result of the nation's prolonged economic slump, government statistics revealed last month.

    The National Police Agency said that 33048 people killed themselves in 1999, an increase of 185 on the record level set the previous year.

    As in previous years, the main reason that people killed themselves was ill health, which was cited in 41% of the 9027 cases where the victim left a note.

    However, the most notable trend was the sharp increase in suicides related to financial problems. Among those who left a note, 2779 said they killed themselves for economic reasons, a rise of about 12% over the previous year.

    Police estimate that a lack of money was a factor in about one in three suicides. Reflecting the trauma of unemployment in a society that until recently had been used to full employment, 47% of those who killed themselves were without work.

    Business failures accounted for 1026 deaths, and an inability to meet basic living costs was thought to be the reason for another 916 suicides.

    Police are investigating whether the starvation of five adult siblings in Osaka last week comes into this category. The victims of this unusual and high profile case stopped eating when their uncle, a self proclaimed religious guru, ran out of money.

    Continuing a trend that has been noticeable in the past two years, middle aged men were particularly likely to kill themselves. Police officials said this was because they were most vulnerable to corporate restructuring.

    Men accounted for 23512 suicides (71% of the total). Of these, 40% were men in their 40s and 50s.

    In terms of age, the greatest proportion of suicides (34% of the total) was in those aged over 60. This was followed by 25% among those in their 50s and 16% among those in their 40s.

    The new report leaves Japan's suicide rate at about 17.2 deaths per 100000 people, one of the highest rates in the world, though still less than half the rate in Hungary (35.3).

    As well as the economic slump, cultural factors are also believed to have contributed to Japan's large number of suicides. In the two main Japanese religions—Shintoism and Buddhism— there is no moral prohibition on self killing, and many literary works extol it as a way to atone for misdeeds.

    The fact that life assurance policies in Japan do not exclude payouts in the event of suicide, as is often the case in Britain and western Europe, may also distort the picture somewhat.

    Embedded Image

    The East Japan Railway Co has installed mirrors in some subway stations to deter passengers from suicide


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