Suicides in Japan are like wildfires in California: tragic, inevitable and seemingly unsolvable. According to the National Police Agency, 1805 people killed themselves in September and suicides amongst women were disproportionately rising.
Still, cases of people offing themselves had gone down in the past 10 years, and 2019 closed out the year with 20,169 cases – the lowest number of deaths since 1978 when the government first started keeping records, and minus 10,000-plus cases during the early naughts. Strangely enough, though the Japanese government is secretive and reticent about almost every other glitch found in the archipelago, they’ve always been upfront about the nation’s suicide rate. Few countries in the world are so ready to reveal the numbers but not in Japan.
Suicide has never been taboo here. Back when Tokyo was called Edo and the nation was closed off to foreigners, the suicide rate in this city was said to be twice what it is now, among a population of a mere one million, which is one-fourteenth of what it is today.
There was a collective mentality that dying by one’s own hand is the best and most effective way to make a statement or erase problems, and the legacy still holds. Popular belief has it that every Japanese person goes through life knowing at least one person who committed suicide. (I myself have known six, but that’s fairly common.)
This year, suicides were low until June, but from July to August, the figures kept climbing. This was more or less in the cards – some experts had predicted as early as March that under the Covid-19 pandemic, more people will kill themselves than be killed by the virus. In August alone, 1854 people took their own lives of which 119 were women under 30 years old. This figure is alarming, but mainstream media seems too distracted to shed much light on why this is happening. Those who bothered however, tracked down Dr. Toshihiko Matsumoto, a psychiatrist who works almost exclusively with suicidal patients. According to Matsumoto, there had been an increase in young women with suicidal tendencies since Golden Week (early May), and those who couldn’t make it through the spring drove themselves over the edge during the summer.
Matsumoto said that in Japan, women commit suicides for different reasons from men. “Men’s problems almost always stem from work or the workplace, whereas women are much more social and are apt to encounter snags in their personal relationships. In pre-pandemic days girls could meet their friends for coffee, and just vent. But they were deprived of this pastime during the stay-home period. When the only people you see are family, there’s a lot of material for depression.” He has a point. Most Japanese daughters are diligent and dutiful, but they’re not ready to discuss life problems with mom and dad. “They don’t want to let their parents down,” explained Matsumoto, a logic that in itself is a breeding ground for suicidal thoughts.
Another factor triggering the suicides of young women could be the recent wave of self-inflicted deaths among actors/performers. These were celebrities who seemingly had everything to live for, and still chose death as a way out. In late May, professional wrestler Hana Kimura (22) was found dead in her home after being plagued by social media bullying. In July, the body of Haruma Miura (30) – one of the most popular actors in the industry, was found in his kitchen. After Miura came the death of actress and model Sei Ashina (36). The most recent shocker is the death of Yuko Takeuchi (40), an A-list actress whose career spans 25 years, and who had just remarried a co-star in February. There are five deaths so far, and only one of them left a note – actor Takashi Fujiki (80), whose body was found in a cheap, tiny apartment in Nakano ward.
Media analysts have mostly steered clear of the topic, fearful of stepping on the landmines strewn about on social media. Even a polite statement may be construed as offensive, hurtful or most damning of all – inspire others to die by their own hand.
Misako Noguchi, who has worked as a casting director for the past 30 years, says that she has never seen anything like it. “No matter how bad things got in the real world, it was very rare for performers to die of their own accord. The repercussions of something like that on the larger society would be enormous, and most stars were aware of that.” Noguchi says she blames Covid-19 – “when a performer is forced to stay home for weeks and months on end, it takes a huge toll on their mental health. I myself was going crazy, trapped inside the four walls of my apartment, broke and depressed. Imagine how a big star like Yuko Takeuchi would feel. She was used to being under the spotlight 12 hours a day, surrounded by cameras and people. Then suddenly, bang! Work dried up. She couldn’t even go outside.”
At this point, most Japanese have struck a deal with Covid-19. We’ll wear masks, disinfect vigorously and try to avoid crowds. Just please let us return to a semblance of normalcy. But for some Japanese, it may be too little, too late. Now mental health professionals fear that suicide rate will soar again in December – traditionally a month when many Japanese seek escape from year-end financial troubles by taking their own lives. Unemployment and failed businesses could push more people over the edge, and unlike the summer months, the deaths are expected to occur among people in their 40s to 60s.
It seems mind-numbingly strange that in a country famed for longevity and its super-aged society, suicides should be a leading cause of death. As Dr. Matsumoto says, “maybe what this society needs now isn’t protection measures but far less social distancing and more non-essential excursions.”
If you’re considering suicide or know someone who is, this site in Japanese offers a number of ways to get counseling.
In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available in English for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit them at telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html
" Logan Paul is an idiot, but imagine if all the internet's anger towards him was re-directed to the Japanese government to hold them accountable for a culture of suicide they have enabled. That's the good that can come from this." via @booksaretight ↘https://t.co/ehyJr99UO8
Wow. What a year THAT was, on a whole lot of levels. The unofficial diagnosis is that things will get worse in the year of the sheep, but let’s put that aside for now. A thought to mull over: 2014 was the year the crime rate among senior citizens multiplied by 46 times, and the image of the Japanese Woman – long ranked among the most demure, sensible and persevering humans on the planet – was shattered to smithereens. Now even the heroine of NHK’s trademark morning drama is imported from the US and the tall, blonde “Ellie” represents all that her dark-haired Japanese sisters apparently lost forever: stuff like dedication, endurance, sympathy and a willingness to toil for husband and family. Aw shucks.
Instead, the Japanese Woman is showing aspects of herself that are new, more interesting and often sh*t scary. The Japanese have a traditional name for these femme fatales: dokufu (poisonous women), who end up contaminating and/or destroying the lives of people around her. Novelist Natsuki Kirino once told me that “the women of Japan had been slaves for so long, the wounds of hurt and resentment have festered through generations, passed on from mother to daughter. At their core, Japanese women are capable of incredible acts of cruelty, deception, and violence.” Coming from one of the nation’s most prominent crime writers, famed for fantastically violent stories with women as the culprits, her words carried the weight of truth. Behold, the cast of dokufu who made 2014 a year to remember:
1) Haruko Obokata
She kicked in the year with a bang and has now made her exit, leaving behind a famed press conference statement of “STAP cells DO exist!” – in an adorable, little girl voice. That line was officially nominated for the most fashionable phrase of 2014. The former Harvard University research scientist lead her team in Riken Laboratories to discover and develop the STAP (Stimulus Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency) cell. When deployed, this had the potential to revolutionize stem cell technology. However, Obokata’s paper was disproved in January by “Nature” magazine and 3 months later, Riken concluded she had falsified the data. The golden girl’s fall from grace was swift and hard, compounded by the fact that she had no supporters in sci-tech academia. Rather, Obokata was criticized (especially by women) for being 1) too cute 2) wallpapering her office in pink and 3) showing up at press conferences in Vivienne Westwood dresses. Her supervisor Yoshiki Sasai who co-authored the STAP cell paper, hanged himself in Riken’s laboratory in August, by way of a public apology. Obokata is still an employee there, though her personal lab was shut down along with 200 others, and hundreds of employees were laid off.
2) Ayaka Shiomura
This would have been an open-shut case of sexual harassment (one among many) inside the intricate, mysoginist network of the Japanese political world, but it wasn’t that simple. In June, during a Metropolitan Assembly meeting, Assemblywoman Ayaka Shiomura accused an anonymous male voice, who yelled out jibes to the tune of “Can’t you have kids? What’s wrong with you?,” of rampant sexual harassment. Later, LDP member/Assemblyman Akihiro Suzuki came forward to fess up that the voice was his, and publicly apologized to Shiomura and Tokyo voters. He later resigned. For a brief while, Shiomura became a political heroine and shining advocate of the rights of female public figures. But in a matter of days, her past was exposed: a former swimsuit model and actress who also frequented host clubs. She was also rapped over the knuckles for several unfortunate statements (made on TV) regarding past lovers and how she billed them for terminating the relationship. The highest fee she got was 150,000 yen. After that her popularity plummeted, but she has kept her political position. Akihiro Suzuki on the other hand, disappeared into the ether.
3) The Sasebo Murder by a 16-year old girl This case sent shockwaves through the nation and temporarily labeled Sasebo in Nagasaki as the city of child-murderers. This 16-year old girl – on the school blacklisst ever since she tried to poison her classmate’s lunch several years ago – was found guilty of first strangling, and then dismembering the body of a friend who came over to her apartment. Sasebo has had similar incidents in the past, most prominently the 2004 murder of a 12-year old girl by her girl friend, which happened inside the school building with a box cutter. Minutes after the deed, the friend calmly attended homeroom.
Ironically, the mother of the most recent Sasebo murderess had been on the city’s PTA board and worked to stamp out juvenile delinquency. Apparently mom had been close to her daughter, but her death in 2012 unhinged the girl. The father quickly remarried and enraged by his coldness, the girl tried to club him to death. He arranged for his daughter to live in her own apartment, and paid for her therapy sessions. After the girl was tried and convicted, the father committed suicide to “apologize for causing such sorrow on the family of my daughter’s victim,” as written on his suicide note.
4) Akane Irisawa
Two years back, Akane Irisawa (then twenty years old) was on trial for setting fire to the futon of an 85-year old woman and burning her to death. Irisawa had been working as caretaker at a facility for elderlies in Hiroshima, and the victim had been a patient. Police arrested her on the strength of a confession, which she later denied. Irisawa did, however, admit to taking the patient’s wallet and pocketing the contents, even as the patient was burning inside the futon covers. In July, the Hiroshima court decided on a verdict of not guilty and Irisawa went free, triggering Net supporters to dub her as the “cutest, sexiest arsonist ever.” Irisawa is now a Net idol, and her bikini photos went viral. The relatives of the victim however, call her “the devil” and are suing the facility for gross negligence.
5) Chisako Kakei
Sixty-eight year old Chisako Kakei isn’t glamorous and she certainly doesn’t have the Black Widow allure. Still, she has managed to marry four times and bury every one of her husbands, making, um, a killing (sorry) on each death. She has also been engaged to three or more men, all of whom landed in early graves, appointing her as the main benefactor to whatever financial assets they owned. Up to now, she had been questioned by the police but never convicted. But in December, husband no. 4 kicked the bucket and the police found traces of cyanide in his stomach and from an empty vial in the trash bin – apparently, Kakei had been a tad too sloppy this time.
How did she get her men? Kakei searched for prey in the nation’s numerous marriage and matchmaking agencies, and she was never without an older man willing to write off his fortune to her, thereby sealing his fate. Interestingly, older Japanese men are much more marriage-minded than women, because right on the day of her last husband’s funeral, Kakei was already slotting eligible men into her “date calendar,” all of whom were literally dying to tie the knot. Kakei’s total savings are rumored to be anywhere between 12 and 15 million yen.
According to the National Police Agency (NPA), Japan’s annual total of suicides dipped below 30,000 people for the first time in 15 years in 2012 — to 27,766. While the fall is great news, part of me wonders: Has there really been a drop in suicides or should we look at it as a drop in homicides?
According to the government’s 2012 “White Paper on Suicide,” in 2011 there were 30,651 cases recorded of people taking their own lives. The motives listed were in the following descending order of problems related to health; daily life; family; and work.
But here’s an odd thing: The reasons for the suicide were only determined in 73 percent of cases — in more than 25 percent of cases they were for reasons unknown. Many of those cases perhaps presented no reason because they weren’t suicides at all.
According to the NPA, since 1998 there have been 45 cases of murder initially ruled by police to have been due to natural causes or suicide. Among those, one was a man from Nagano Prefecture whose murder in 1980 was treated as a suicide until the killer confessed in 2000 — after the statute of limitations had passed.
The NPA has admitted that in Japan only 10 percent of suspicious deaths result in an autopsy. However, when a death initially appears to be due to suicide, only 5 percent are autopsied. The lack of a comprehensive use of autopsies was only brought to the public’s attention after several cases of “missed murders” came to light. The 45 known cases may just be “the edge of the graveyard” as some cops have put it. For the rest of the story, please continue to original The Japan Times column
There’s definitely something a little odd about Japan’s high suicide rate. It may not quite be what it appears to be. And the factors driving the high suicide rates are not always what you’d expect. We asked Kaori Shoji, our favorite 図解ジャーナリスト (illustrating journalist) to break it all down–with cute pictures. She even added cultural references for fans of Japanese literature.
Rene Duignan, director of the documentary Saving 10,000: Winning a War on Suicide in Japanwhich was released in Tokyo for the first time on September 10th, 2012 revealed today that his movie made its way up to the Japanese Parliament and received a warm applause after its screening at the Parliament building last night.
He said that, the Diet screening last night was opened by MP Hosono and closed by MP Renho, who as a former minister in charge of suicide prevention gave the movie a great review. “When I announced that I was giving the movie away for free online, it sparked a huge round of applause. It was an incredibly moving moment that I will never forget.”
When the movie was first released last year, Dr. Rene Duigan said: “Nobody tries to highlight the real problems and most importantly what to do about them.” Mr. Duignan explained his reasons for putting the documentary together as follows, “A complete sense of desperation about the apparent hopelessness of the suicide situation pushed me to buy a movie camera and ask a 22 year old former student of mine to operate it. It was a completely ridiculous thing to attempt. Most documentaries on this topic like to show corpses and feed on the tears of tragedy, I call them tragedy vampires. Nobody tries to highlight the real problems and most importantly what to do about them. I planned to interview 10 people but it turned out to be 100. I think people like underdogs and admired the complete futility of the task we were attempting so very few turned down our request for interviews. With so many people helping out, I think we can call this movie a genuine grassroots effort.” Tokyo English Life Line, which offers free counseling and emotional support on its Life Line, had the first-ever screening of the film as part of raising awareness of World Suicide Prevention Day.
TOKYO — Tadahiro Matsushita, the Minister of Financial Services, was found dead on September 10, on World Suicide Prevention Day in what police are investigating as a suicide. He allegedly hung himself in his own home. He would not be he first Japanese government minister to kill himself and he won’t be the last. It was reported that he was struggling with the pressures of his job.*
According to Jiji Press and other sources, the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, was getting ready to print a story involving Matsushita and an affair involving a woman. Shukan Shincho editors were not available to comment. The last time a cabinet minister committed suicide was in 2007, when agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka hanged himself after allegations of fiscal misconduct.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said, according to Reuters, “I’m shocked to hear the sad news. He always gave me encouragement when things were tough.”
Japan’s Suicide Problem
The timing of Matsushita’s death underlines the scale of Japan’s suicide problem. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Despite laws and outlines adopted by the government to tackle Japan’s high suicide rate, the number of suicides has remained over 30,000 per year for 14 years. While there have been rises and ebbs, the numbers stay high even as Japan’s population continues to shrink.
Suicide hotlines in Japan are so overloaded that getting through to a live operator can take thirty or more calls. Many don’t have that patience. And there’s a new documentary released in Japan this week that examines why the Japanese government is unable to significantly reduce Japan’s high suicide rates. Suicide in Japan does not have the same nuance it does in the West. It’s not a religious taboo. The Japanese have a curious history of finding beauty in the act of suicide. Taking one’s life is sometimes considered more heroic than defeat.
The Japanese word for the act is remarkably straight-forward: 自殺 (ji-satsu). It literally means “kill” (殺) “oneself“(自)”. Few-euphemisms are used for the word. Suicide in Japan has a long tradition of being a means of apology, protest, means of taking revenge, and dealing with illness.
Life Insurance Spurs People To End Their Lives?
Rene Duignan, director of the documentary Saving 10,000: Winning a War on Suicide in Japanwhich was released in Tokyo just prior to Suicide Prevention Day says: “Nobody tries to highlight the real problems and most importantly what to do about them.” Mr. Duignan explained his reasons for putting the documentary together as follows, “A complete sense of desperation about the apparent hopelessness of the suicide situation pushed me to buy a movie camera and ask a 22 year old former student of mine to operate it. It was a completely ridiculous thing to attempt. Most documentaries on this topic like to show corpses and feed on the tears of tragedy, I call them tragedy vampires. Nobody tries to highlight the real problems and most importantly what to do about them. I planned to interview 10 people but it turned out to be 100. I think people like underdogs and admired the complete futility of the task we were attempting so very few turned down our request for interviews. With so many people helping out, I think we can call this movie a genuine grassroots effort.” Tokyo English Life Line, which offers free counseling and emotional support on its Life Line, had the first-ever screening of the film as part of raising awareness of World Suicide Prevention Day.
The documentary poses a very good question: “Why is it that life insurance companies pay out on suicide? Stop paying people to kill themselves. Stop incentivizing people to die and leave their families alone.” Etsuji Okamoto, a researcher at the Japanese Institute of Health, makes the same arguments convincingly in his 2010 essay “Suicide and Life Insurance.” [An English translation is at the bottom]
In post-war Japan, people would sign a life insurance contract. And go straight out, and kill themselves under the nearest train. Eventually, the life insurance companies started putting in one-year exemption clauses in their policies, so people would sign a contract and they must wait one year before killing themselves to get the money. It was still a very good deal for desperate people, so the suicide rate spiked on the thirteenth month. The insurance companies extended the exemption period to two years. The result was that suicides spiked on the twenty-fifth month of the contract.
Insurance agencies and the police say some men laid off from jobs have killed themselves to enable their families to live in comfort. “Japan has no law mandating how insurance companies deal with policy holders’ suicides,” said Masaru Tanabe, spokesman for the Life Insurance Association of Japan famously told the Associated Press in 1999. In March 2004, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that insurers “must pay for suicides” if the death occurs within the terms of the insurance agreement.
Suicide Is Easy: Buy A Manual, Pick a popular spot
Novels, movies and the spread of the Internet suicide chat rooms have contributed to the suicide boom in Japan. They have also popularized some areas as suicide landmarks. A forest near the Mount Fuji became the ideal site for committing suicide when a 1960s novel by Seichō Matsumoto was published. The novel tells a story of a couple who meets their end in Aokigahara forest. Others attribute an increase in the number of suicides to Wataru Tsurumi’s description of Jukai (the ocean of trees) as “the perfect place to die” in his 1993 perennial best-selling book The Complete Manual of Suicide. Both books are reportedly often found along with human remains in the forest.
The manual of suicide seems to have been written in a way to “encourage” readers to choose an easy way of getting rid of problems. “If your children have a copy of that book in their room, you should be aware that something might be going wrong in his life, and do everything possible to prevent suicide by detecting early signs of suicide,” says Duignan.
Suicide or Murder? 自殺か他殺か
There is one question that Saving 10,000 does not examine in depth.
It’s the possibility that many so-called suicides are actually homicides.
In 2010, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest paper reported that police conducted autopsies in only 4.4 percent of the cases determined to be suicides the year before. The lack of proper autopsies was only brought to the attention of the media after a several cases of a killer being caught after successfully staging murders as suicides. Sometimes suicides are only found to be murders after a criminal confesses his or her past crimes to the police. Suspicious deaths in Japan only have a 10 percent autopsy rate compared to 50 percent in the United States.
The Life Insurance Association of Japan finally agreed to fully cooperate with police requests for information on the insurance status of the deceased in a suspicious death case in June of this year, according to the Sankei Newspaper. However, the new measures won’t be implemented until April of 2013, at the earliest, when a unified data system goes on-line.A retired homicide detective noted that Life Insurance companies are not enthusiastic about cooperating with murder investigations. “For an insurance company, it’s a cheaper pay-out if the victim kills themselves or dies a natural death. If someone is murdered, there’s no room for negotiation–they have to pay the full amount.”
According to the National Police Agency, since 1998, there have been 16 cases of “overlooked” deaths that later turned out to be murders committed for gaining life insurance money.
There is a serious shortage of medical examiners nationwide, resulting in low autopsy rates. As a result, and as noted above, the Japanese Police have faced as series of embarrassing cases that were first ruled to be natural deaths or suicides by the authorities and later discovered to be homicide. The most recent case was that of Kanae Kijima, who was believed to have killed at least three men after swindling them out of their money. The first deaths were ruled as suicides. She was convicted of murder this year and sentenced to hang. She might have been arrested if the police had only done an autopsy on her first, in 2009. It has been pointed out many time, that Japan’s low autopsy rate makes it possible to disguise a murder under the guise of suicide. The case is well argued in Low autopsy rate seen abetting murderers by Natsuko Fukue, in The Japan Times. A National Police Agency source speculates, “the number of murders disguised as self-killings that have come to light are probably only the tip of the iceberg.” There are some experts that suggest that up to 5% of Japan’s reported suicides are actually homicides.
There’s no doubt that people are killed and the murders sometimes staged as suicides so the criminal can collect the insurance money. But very often, the simple truth is the insured kill themselves for the sake of their family or to pay off their debts.
The Final Loan Payment….
“In Japan, if you have lost your job, you have been cut in all of the employment cutting that is going on, but you still have a mortgage of twenty years left to pay and you have children’s education fees to pay. What do you do? Well you go and get the solution, it’s very easy. All your debts are paid. Your mortgage repayments are finished. And your children will have a great education, you’ll get maybe 300,000 Dollars or so, and all you have to give is… your life.”—Saving 10,000
Debt and economic troubles were blamed for the death of about 8,500 people in 2000, a fourfold increase from a decade earlier. Many victims had gotten into trouble with debt collectors or people that owned companies that went bankrupt. With Japan’s finance laws, when a company goes bankrupt, the individuals who owned it or were guarantors for the firm are deemed responsible and they go bankrupt too. Japan’s consumer loan industry and loan sharks, both who often have yakuza connections aggravate the situation, by preying on the financially destitute. The loan sharks and/or the servicers will sometimes goad a debtor to kill themselves so that they can claim the money owed, from the family, after the life insurance is paid off.
Insurance agencies and the police say some men laid off from jobs have killed themselves to enable their families to live in comfort. “Japan has no law mandating how insurance companies deal with policy holders’ suicides,” said Masaru Tanabe, spokesman for the Life Insurance Association of Japan famously told the Associated Press in 1999.
In March 2004, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that insurers “must pay for suicides” if the death occurs within the terms of the insurance agreement. In 2006, during a session of the Diet, in reply to a question from a DPJ representative, the Financial Services Agency admitted that Japan’s 5 largest consumer loan companies had been the beneficiaries of 3,649 debtors who had committed suicide (for the fiscal year 2005). In other words, Promise, Takefuji, Aiful and others were able to claim the money owed them from the life insurance pay-offs—after the borrower killed themselves. Of course, the number of people who had been driven to commit suicide by “illegal” loan sharks was unknown.
The lessons to be learned from the documentary are many but the primary point seems simple to understand: the exclusion of suicide from death benefits would probably greatly enhance suicide prevention. It wouldn’t change the Japanese cultural viewpoints on suicide as an acceptable means of dealing with a problem but it would remove the financial incentive and that might be a good start.
Taiki Nakashita, a Buddhist priest, social activist, and counselor to those contemplating suicide, says that there is no one way to prevent suicide and no easy answers to the problem. He believes that Japanese society needs to change to support the disadvantaged and poor, adding, “Most people don’t kill themselves because they want to die. They kill themselves because they don’t know how to go on living. We need to make Japanese a place easier for people to live.”
In the first chapters of Hanayagi Genshu’s book Nigetara Akan!, she outlines the problem of suicide in Japan shockingly clearly — one person every fifteen minutes dies by their own hand in Japan. This article? Just more proof of the problem.