If there's one negative stereotype that you hear about Japan, it's the supposed epidemic of suicides in this country and a whole lot of other ideas linked to it. This view has some merit, but there's a whole lot of inaccurate information or ideas flying around out there.
This may be because when you put "suicide" and "Japan" in the same sentence and you'll probably going to get two sensationalist images:
- The kamikaze fighter, and
- Disemboweling samurai.
This article is here to help debunk some of those myths.
1. Japan is not the most suicidal country in the world
Myth: That Japan is the suicide capital of the world
It may have been but it isn't right now.
Wikipedia notes that because of problems with reporting, not to mention the difference in the years which statistics were reported, it may not be fair to compare suicide statistics across countries directly. That being said though, when addressing the above myth statistics are all we have to rely on.
Number of suicides per 100,000 people per country
Here's some data that I tidied up from Wikipedia as you can see, Japan is rather far from being the top in terms of proportionate suicides with around one quarter the suicide rate of Greenland.
Even if you remove Greenland and consider it a part of Denmark, it's still one third less than Lithuania. And while the numbers are still high, it would still it would be 8th place not the first.
The data may be distorted in various ways but this is more than ample grounds to doubt whether Japan really is the most suicidal country in the world. Plus, based on the data I found here the last time that Japan was at the top of the suicide tables for current OECD countries was back in the 1960s.
And poor Greenlanders!
2. Actually Suicide Rates have been falling for quite a few years.
Myth: Suicide rates in Japan just keep getting worse and worse!
Every year the same sort of headlines come out: "Japan's suicides top 30,000 people!" "Suicide in Japan is a huge problem!" … etc. While these headlines are technically true, they're being sensationalist because the real story just isn't as interesting. The fact is, Japan's suicide rates have seen an overall decrease since the early 2000s, both in the total number of suicides as well as suicide rate. Japan's suicide rates peaked in the late 1990s to early 2000s with the total number of people committing suicide crossing 30,000 people for the first time in history in 1998 and peaking in 2003 with 34,427 people (or about a hundred a day) committing suicide.
The graph below shows the change since then.
As you can see, stuff is improving with constant decreases from 2009 onwards. Maybe it's because Japan's economy has stagnated instead of worsening like in the 1990s. Or maybe it's because the government measures (the Basic Law on Suicide Prevention and many other policies that were enacted in 2006-2007) are working. It's hard to know for sure, but certainly something right is happening.
3. Tokyo isn't the most suicidal part of Japan
Myth: Suicides are mainly caused by city stress and overwork, thus Tokyo (especially from the view of Kansai people is probably going to be the most miserable and suicidal place within Japan.
Tokyo prefecture's suicide rates are actually below average. Let's take a look at this table.
Points to note:
The prefecture with the highest suicide rate is Miyagi – possibly due to the effects of devastation from the 2011 earthquake.
The top 5 (actually top 10 but not shown to save space) prefectures with the highest suicide rates are generally rural outside the immediate Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka areas. Yamanashi (which borders Tokyo) is at No. 10 but it generally isn't considered heavily urbanized nor a part of the Tokyo Megapolis.
The prefectures with the highest number of suicides is Tokyo – but then Tokyo has the highest population of any prefecture. When considering it's proportional suicide rate it's less than the national average.
Osaka is less suicidal than Tokyo – that's at least one thing the Kansai people have gotten correct.
So we can see that actually, instead of the stereotype about happy people living in rural villages, there's something else going on. In fact, it seems like the stereotypes are flip flopped from what they should be. As for why it's opposite from what most people expect? Let's take a look at Myth #4.
4. Age and economics explain the pattern.
The above discrepancy between prefectures is explained by how most rural prefectures have more elderly people and worse economies compared to the big cities.
Economics: The Japanese wikipedia notes that there is a strong negative correlation between available job openings and suicides, and a strong positive correlation between the number of bankruptcies of small companies and suicides. The economies of rural Japan are generally worse than those of the main cities, so more people are likely to commit suicide as they are more likely to face economic problems.
Age: Age matters because of two reasons. Economic problems such as unemployment or bankruptcy and familial problems such as divorce are more likely to happen to people above 40. The higher the age of the population, the larger the number of people in this "danger zone". Plus, the main cause of suicide for those aged 60 and over becomes health problems too.
Since young people tend to leave for the major cities for work, the people in rural prefectures tend to be older. This means a proportionally higher number of people in danger of suicide.
5. Throwing oneself in front of a trains is a choice not often taken.
Now, different countries have different patterns for suicide. The WHO notes that, for example, the USA has a disproportionate rate of suicide with firearms. Other more agricultural countries have high rates of suicide by using pesticide.
These are the most common ways for suicides in Japan. Data is from the Center for Suicide Prevention.
As you can see, by far the most used method of suicide is hanging, with some variation between the genders further down. "Tobikomi" coincidentally comes in at 6th for both genders.
"Tobikomi" literally means "to jump in" so this naturally includes trains. However, this also includes jumping in front of road traffic so when you total things up, committing suicide by jumping in front of a train is highly uncommon.
By the way, according to this article there have apparently been cases of the train companies (in this case JR Kyushu and JR East) taking the families of those who committed suicide to court for damages and lost income. This has most likely reduced the number of people committing suicide in this way, because many people would not want to bring attention and financial grief to their families due to their method of suicide.
Extra: Suicide websites
While doing research for this article I did come across many websites with some information on how to commit suicide. I didn't manage to find any of the infamous "suicide pact" websites, so maybe they were taken down? But the websites that I did fine kind of boggled my mind.
Take for example this website (in Japanese). The title of the website is literally "The Encyclopedia of Suicide Methods" and it has suicide methods ranked according to criteria on how troublesome it is, how painful it is, how ugly it will be for bystanders and how "impactful" it will be. The description of suicide by jumping from a tall building goes like this:
What I really want you to know is that the minimum height needed is 20m … and another thing that I want you to know is that the ground should be concrete. If it is concrete, it seems that death will be possible in almost all cases … To prevent someone from discovering you immediately and sending you to hospital, somewhere secluded is preferable. Also, do not commit suicide where there are people around. It is not good to involve others and cause trouble for others.
But what boggles my mind is that despite doing all the detail, the website claims that its goal is to "let people know about suicide methods, and not to promote suicide". The top page of the website also has a long philosophical explanation about how one must think about death to appreciate the wonder of living and stuff like that. But I don't think I'm the only one here thinking that recommending the heights and floors of the locations to commit suicide is "thinking about death" in order to enjoy life.
This wasn't the only website that I found boggled my mind. Another (which has since been taken down) advertises fortune-telling services. After a much less detailed description (compared to the previous site) it says: "before you give up everything, why not reset your future with a fortune telling".
But it was this website which boggled my mind the most. While this website has lots on information on suicide prevention (hotline numbers, where to get help etc), at the same time it has also information about "how to hang yourself without pain" or "how to freeze yourself to death in Hokkaido" as well as a form to declare one's intent of suicide.
The webmaster says in a part of his website:
I came with the understanding that "suicides in and of themselves are not bad". Among all the people who are living, I thought that there ought to be people who "would rather be dead" and that these people ought to have a right to know some "painless ways of suicide".
He also says that while the website was only about introducing suicide methods at first, he later added the information about prevention so that some people would be able to come to terms with and deal with their problems without killing themselves.
On That Pleasant Note…
Apologies for the morbid topic but I felt that this is a topic that had too many semi-factual stereotypes and myths around it.
I also thought about writing about the cultural / historical background and why Japan is (with reason) called a suicide-tolerant country. But maybe that's for the next article.
So while Japan does have some issues with suicide, it's not quite the "suicide-happy" country that many people make it out to be. In fact, it's been improving, slowly but surely (actually, somewhat quickly if you take a look at those graphs earlier in the article). I hope that I could get you to change your mind a little bit, if you believed in any of these myths too. So what do you think?