Cracking under the strain – the rising suicide rates in Japan

It makes me a bit sad to write about this topic, but write I must….now that I am sharing experiences from my life In Japan.This is something which I experience almost every other day in my life in Tokyo…train accidents or “Jinshin Jikou” as they are called. The very trains, which have proved to be one of the safest in the world, end up injuring or killing many, not because of any fault of the train companies…but just because some people think that jumping in front of the train is the easiest and a sure shot way to commit suicide. So much so that the common man has kind of become indifferent to such incidents.

The first thought that comes to a rush hour office goer when he hears about a jinshin jikou is….”oh another accident..i wonder if i will be able to reach office in time”……..unfortunate, it is!! but it has become a way of life here.

Death in the Yamanote


Pietro Zuco

When I started my life in Japan almost a decade ago, such incidents sounded shocking to me..and people’s attitude towards the suicides was even more appalling. Over the years I have realized that my own attitude towards it has changed too. I have kind of started “thinking alike” .I guess this has to do with the human tendency to accept change and adapt oneself to one’s surroundings.

As probably many of us are aware, Japan has one of the highest suicidal rates in the world and the factors include unemployment, depression and social pressures. Out of these, committing suicide due to social pressures is something which is probably one of the most common reasons. In Japanese culture there is a long history of honorable suicides, which were strongly linked to the Samurai way of life and Bushido code (code of a warrior) – loyalty and honor until death.

Samurais committed “Harakiri” – a form of committing suicide by cutting open their stomach. They believed that it was better to die rather than fall into the hands of their enemy. During Japan’s imperial years, suicide was common within the military. This included Kamikaze ((Divine wind) and Kaiten ( return to the sky) – “suicidal aircrafts” “suicidal crafts” designed in a manner, that enabled the Japanese army to commit suicides when a battle was lost.

In 2007, when the then cabinet minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka took his life, while being investigated for an expenses scandal, the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, described him as a “true samurai” for preserving his honor.

It is indeed unfortunate to see that the cultural heritage of suicide as a noble tradition still has some resonance in the modern Japanese society.

Another arguably leading cause of suicide in Japan, is “Karojisatsu” – death from overwork. Individuals in Japan work for more hours than most of their counterparts in other countries, and there is little government regulation in the number of hours an employee can put in. In doing so, the employee shows his/her dedication towards the company – at the cost of the employee’s mental health. Studies have linked excessive amounts of work-related stress to depression, which oftentimes leads to suicide as a means of escape.

Suicide has never been criminalized in Japan till date. Japanese society’s attitude toward suicide has been termed as “tolerant,” and on many occasions a suicide is seen as a morally responsible action and a viable alternative. Although, the public unease due to the rising suicide rates has grown over the years, a lot needs to be done socially and policy wise to curb these rising levels.

Until the societal attitudes and issues are addressed, Japan will face an uphill climb in lowering the suicide rate permanently. And in a society that has been infamously slow to adapt to change, the pursuit of such a goal may take quite some time.

It isn’t easy stopping a person from killing himself/herself, after all.

photo by:

foolish adler

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