Youth suicide in Japan

In Asia, especially in Japan and South Korea, the dramatic issue of suicide is often mentionned. Recently, during Japanese class, I had the opportunity to learn the Japanese phrase « 五月 病« , « disease of May. » This is a period of depression for Japanese – especially students and new employees, as the academic and professional beginning of April are cut by a week’s holiday – the Golden week. Upon their return, the young Japanese are no longer in the excitement of novelty and feel depressed, abandoned. This is also the period to pay Japanese taxes, which does not rise up anybody’s mood. But in Japan, youth suicide is the leading cause of death for Japanese aged 15 to 39 years.

It should be recalled that Japan – despiste being known for this problem, is not at the high rank of the country per suicide rates. According to sources of the World Health Organization (2015), it ranks in 17th position (whereas France is ranked 47th). And statistics have been below 30 000 suicides annually since 2012. In 2014, there were 25.218 suicides (10500 per year in France). The decline is a relief after a dramatical increase during the 90 – by which time the public started to mobilize.

Culturally, we must also understand that suicide is not considered the same way as in France, and for a long time, it was an honorable death.

« In Japanese culture, for example, there are basically two types of suicide: honorable and dishonorable suicide. Honorable suicide is a means of protecting the reputation of one’s family after a member has been found guilty a of dishonorable deed such as embezzlement or flunking out of college, or to save the nation as in the case of the kamikaze pilots in World War II. Dishonorable suicide is when one takes his or her life for personal reasons in order to escape some turmoil. This is thought of as a cowardly way out of life and a coward can only bring dishonor to his family. »
The Moral Dimensions of Properly Evaluating and Defining Suicide, Edward S. Harris, 2009

In 2007, the Japanese government launched a 9 steps program to reverse the curve of suicides by 20% by 2017. The idea was to investigate the causes to better prevent, but also to change the cultural vision of suicide in Japan. Investing in research, prevention and counseling centers for people in need, the government has managed some progress in recent years.

Suicide in Japan is particularly linked to its social and cultural context. In the 1990s, the development of websites related to suicide, through which « promises suicides » were formed between strangers, had terrified the Japanese medias. These pacts, called « shinju » were passed on forums, authors planning to meet to commit suicide. If the concept existed in Japanese history, its modern version is not socially accepted, and was portrayed as a violent and reckless act.

The economic situation is also a predominant factor in suicide in Japanese. The bursting of the economic bubble has shattered the traditional pattern of the salaryman and his job for life, forcing the Japanese to discover job insecurity. In 2010, it was estimated that 57% of suicides are related to unemployment. Conversely, fear of job loss pushes employees to take a lot more pressure – and working long hours, thereby leading to depression, but also to death by karoshi.

Beyond work, loans  from banks also weigh in the balance. According to the National Police Agency, a quarter of suicides are related to money: the lending criteria are so strict that they force the borrower to have a guarantor. The pressure and shame to pose such a risk on guarantors push the borrowers to despair. To get by (sic) they suscribe to life insurance covering the payment of their debt in case of suicide. According to some experts, harassment of debtors causes them to take that route … Some dubious institutions tend to subscribe automatically to a « suicide » insurance while not informing borrowers …

If the suicide’s numbers are declining – a phenomenon associated with economic recovery, the average suicides for young people is still very high and troubles the Japanese government, wondering why Japanese youth choses to die. Indeed, the parallel drawn earlier between employment, economic and suicide does not match the situation of young Japanese.

News regularly evoke the case of students ending their days after verbal or physical harassment – by the comrades but also teachers. It seems that Japanese young people facing persecution, harassment and stress caused by their social environment, prefer to commit suicide.

According to Yamauchi Takashi Researcher General Strategy Centre for Suicide Prevention (Research Institute for Mental Health):

« In all the G7 nations apart from Japan, among young people, death from illnesses such as cancer or due to a road traffic accident is much more common than suicide. However, while the rate of suicides among the middle aged and elderly has fallen in Japan, this psychological weakness stands out among younger people. I wonder if this is because who don’t educate our young people on how to deal with stress as they do in other countries? It seems that the suicide rate among the middle aged and elderly will continue to fall, but among young people there is an upward trend. Furthermore, attempted suicides are not included in these numbers. In cases where people are rushed to hospital due to self-inflicted injuries there are usually more women, but when we include the attempted suicides among young people, the number seems pretty substantial.« 

In all cases, the problem of suicide in Japan is facing a big challenge that any foreigner probably perceive after some time in Japan: the shame and stigma that surrounds mental distress and mental illness. Rather than turn to mental health studies, Japan is trying to influence solely with social factors. As a result, the government is strengthening social programs, turning away completely from mental health services, underdevelopped.

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