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 Japan which 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.”
*Note: portions of this article were originally published in The Atlantic Wire. The candle photo was provided by courtesy of Tokyo English Life Line. There is a long string of commentary of the original article here. Japan’s Finance Minister Commits Suicide on Suicide Prevention Day