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Dealing with Japan’s High Suicide Rate

This issue is very complex and will not be fixed overnight. With the help of the community and the Japanese government, I believe that it will become easier for sufferers to seek help.

By 4 min read

Suicide has become an alarming issue in Japan. If you are from Japan, you probably know at least one or two people who took their own lives. It is very sad. For me, I know at least two people who committed suicide. One of them was a girl attending my high school and she killed herself by hanging because she was bullied by her friends in school. The news shocked the school principal, teachers and her schoolmates. Although I didn’t know her personally, it was very sad.

The second person who committed suicide was a friend of my mother. He wasn’t our close friend but we knew him and invited him over dinner occasionally. We didn’t hear from him for about six months at that point, so my mother was a bit concerned and called his family only to find out that he had committed suicide. We still don’t know what exactly caused his suicide. The most sad issue here is that this happens everyday in Japan and many are underreported so the actual number of people who committed suicides may be higher.

One of the most common ways to commit suicide is to jump in front of a train. It is not uncommon to be riding the train and have it suddenly come to a stop with the announcement that there has been a “personal injury” on the tracks.

One of the most infamous suicide areas is Aokigahara, also known as the Suicide Forest which is located at the northwest base of Mt. Fuji. With its thick dense forest and remote location, Aokigahara is one of the most popular places for suicides with the government reporting that over 100 suicides a year are reported there.

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The local government has tried to stop the suicides by placing signs at the entry of the forest, in Japanese and English, urging suicidal visitors to seek help and not kill themselves. There is also a telephone box with a free suicide hotline to call and talk to a counsellor. Despite the efforts, people who go into the forest never return.

It is reported that there are over 30,000 suicides every year in Japan with middle aged Japanese men are more likely to be at risk. This is a very sad reality created by modern Japan and there are a couple of issues that need to be fixed in order to reduce the number of suicidal people.

Historically, suicide was considered a virtue. Samurai used to kill himself to regain their honor. Even in modern Japan, some people rather end their lives than living with shame for whatever reasons that they have.

Japan can be a very stressful society to live in as the employment system is very rigid and it is not easy for those who have been laid off to find another job. It is not impossible but it is very challenging due to the rigid employment system created by Japanese government.

I looked for a therapist after I had gone back to Japan temporarily but it was hard for me to find a qualified therapist in Japan. Mental Health help is significantly behind in Japan compared to the U.S. There is also the Japanese culture of shame that prevents many people from seeking out a mental health professional.

Depressed people are often ashamed of themselves but they feel like suicide is the only option they have because they do not want to be stigmatized by their family, friends and ultimately by public. And sufferers themselves don’t have sufficient knowledge about mental health issues due to the poor education on this important field.

A combination of these factors contribute to the high rates of suicides among Japanese people. The Japanese government needs to do more work to ensure the availability of mental health professionals and also work on reducing the stigma around mental health.

This issue is very complex and will not be fixed overnight. With the help of community and the Japanese government, I believe that it will become easier for sufferers to seek help without feeling ashamed. Death is not the answer, no matter what the issue is.

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  • Jorge Garcia says:

    I learned about Aokigahara, the so-called “Suicide Forest” in Japan, while watching a documentary on Netflix about mysterious/ unexplainable places on planet Earth. The documentary was really about UFO’s, though, but that particular episode was about mysterious or deadly places on Earth, which were thought to be under some form of evil force not from this world. The mention of Aokigahara in that episode addressed precisely the mystery surrounding the relatively large number of Japanese people that go there every year simply to commit suicide. Many, though, go into the Forrest but are never really found. So in essence no one knows if they really committed suicide, or were taken (abducted?) by someone or some thing.

    I myself spent three years in Japan long time ago. But never stopped by there to check it out because I didn’t know back then of the place or about what was going on. One time, on my way to Hiroshima to visit the museum, I thought of going to Mt. Fuji but then desisted. I think it’s an interesting place that merits in-depth scientific research to try to find out why people are attracted to that particular place to commit suicide, or to disappear never to be heard of again. People cannot be helped unless they find out what exactly is going on. I mean, if I ever wanted to kill myself (not going to happen but just assuming…) I wouldn’t want to walk into a cold, dark, dreadfully lonely place to die a slow painful scary death. I would prefer a quick, thoughless, uncomplicated way to just get it over with. To me though… there’s something evil in those woods calling out for those poor souls to go there. It may not be UFO-related as some argue, but it’s not something easily explained either.

    P.s. Btw Yumi… u r very pretty! And smart too. I enjoy reading your articles.. keep it up!

  • Owen Howden says:

    Good piece exploring the issue. I think it’s better to not use ‘commit’ or ‘committed’ in relation to suicide. https://www.psychology.org.au/Content.aspx?ID=5048

  • MiddleClassThug says:

    I agree Japanese women are very stressful no wonder Japanese be dating virtual girls LOL

  • Yumitolesson says:

    sure I should have done research and thanks for telling me this. 🙂 but it still doesn’t change my perspectives as Japan still has high suicide rates…and this is a serious problem.

  • ari says:

    I live in indonesia and don’t feel wanna live either

  • Pikachuu says:

    I’ve been living in Japan for almost 4 years now and yes it is indeed a very stressful society to live in particularly in terms of money and work. Im turning 2nd year in university this april but I haven’t decided what kind of job to pursue after I graduate. One thing for sure I myself know is that I don’t wanna spend my entire life living in this society although I owned Permanent residence visa. My problem is my family has been living here for like more than 15 years and them wantting to be here permanently makes it difficult for me to decide for myself. Seriously, I want to get out of this country before anything else happen.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      Hello Pikachuu sorry to hear that you want to leave Japan..but I do understand as I left long time ago. I can see so many positive aspects of Japanese culture but yes it is definitely a very stressful place to live. Social pressures, difficulty finding a job..but hope you will find what you really want to do. May I ask where you are originally from?

  • seth0et0holth says:

    The shame-based culture in regard to everything from mental health to sexuality and gender to financial status to whatever else really, REALLY needs to be challenged. As long as people view suicide as an honorable way out of being ashamed, as long as people treat others badly if they’re “caught” “losing face,” and as long as people fear being shamed, humiliated, abused, and outright discriminated against for things beyond their control… suicide will happen

    • Yumitolesson says:

      There is a long history of honorable suicide in Japan and it has been a huge issue in the country. People commit suicides everywhere but stress, shame, losing a job seem to be the causes of Japan’s high suicide rate.

      • James Paul says:

        Not to mention if the husband dies the home loan is paid by insurance and the family can get a nifty sum in life insurance also if the husband has it… I know I would probably chose that way if I thought my wife and kids were gonna wind up on the streets…. just saying….

  • ケイ says:

    All i can say is i love japan ,live there for a decade and planning to go bck someday ..

  • アンソニ ペトリーニ says:

    Did you not take into consideration the number of incidents that go unreported? Maybe you should do some research on Japanese culture and the various incidents relating to crime that continuously go undocumented. 終わり.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      thank you..that is a good point. Victims’ families may feel too ashamed to report the family’s suicides. but I do have to look into the data and if the number of suicides is declining in Japan, that is very good but the government should still invest more money in mental health care system, free crisis hotlines etc.

    • Japanese Bull Fighter says:

      Unreported incidents would not have an impact on the trend line (sharply downward) unless there had been an increase in unreported incidents. Because the government started a push on suicide prevention in 2010, it is more probable that reporting has increased. Because the murder rate in Japan is relatively low, murder passed off as suicide cannot have a large impact on the suicide count. This would be true for the numbers given by the original author as well as those I gave. They come from the same source, Japanese police reports. Moreover, because Japan has a national police force with uniform training and reporting standards, Japanese data is inherently more reliable than that of the US. As for studying Japanese culture, I would note that I started studying Japanese language and culture in 1968, have a graduate degree in Japanese social history, and have taught sociology including the sociology of suicide in Japan in Japanese to Japanese college students for 17 years.

      • Yumitolesson says:

        thank you for your input. You have an excellent academic record, training and knowledge..

  • ふみなり 주문성 says:

    I was there about half a year back and that was my 1st ever trip to Japan, and guess what? I was indirectly involved in a train incident. I was on the way to Hakone with japanese friends i knew for more than 15 years. When the train was passing by Ninomiya station and suddenly the train hit the break and there is slight bump, then there is this announcement, i didn’t manage to catch it all and my friend update me on the exact message. Not any good news for sure, i was informed that we would moving again in another 20mins so we have to stay in the train. The reason the bump was obvious is due to i’m in the 1st car, the one where the driver was in. Eventually, the situation is a bit complicated and we were ask to leave the train and wait at station. We were stuck there for around 2 hour as the situation was more complicated then it was. But we manage to move on after fetching the subsequent train.
    Til today, i will never forget 17th May 2014.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      so the train you were on was stopped because someone jumped in front of it? When i lived in Tokyo, that happened several times and I didn’t understand what was going on initially and I was stuck in a crowded train. It is very sad..

      • ふみなり 주문성 says:

        Yea, just as the train almost done passing by the station. And that incident causes delay to 18 train on same line, estimated 20,000 person was affected. (http://news.livedoor.com/article/detail/8841748/). As i asked around my friends that went to Japan (study or holiday), one that study there for 3 year there & another that went holiday for 1 whole month, never encounter it. But still, i still want to come back to Japan, if possible, work & stay there 🙂

  • Maggie Flos says:

    Hi. I’ve only been here for a couple of months, but one thing that really struck me is the way people at the bottom are treated. I think it’s not a government problem, it’s a problem within the society and not just the shame culture. People in a lower position are treated as incompetent and seen only as another pair of hands to complete tasks instead of valuing them also for their insights. So it’s no wonder people are more depressed over here when you are taken for granted all the time. This is of course not the case everywhere, but it’s a more common phenomenon here in Japan and it wont change any time soon. The younger generation might start changing once they acquire higher positions, so it’s going to take a couple of decades or more.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      Even in a corporate world, new employees hired by the company are often yelled at, bullied by their supervisors, coworkers..and switching jobs isn’t as easy in Japan so people are more pressured to stay..tolerate unacceptable behaviors and it’s a lot of pressures and fear of shame doesn’t help the problem.

    • Tess de la Serna says:

      I am hoping that with internet, the youth are seeing the good and the bad of the Japanese culture. It will change for sure, I just hope more in the good side. Most of the older Japanese still has the “anti” gaijin attitude. It is a deep rooted cultural aspect of what makes Japanese unique. Despite that, I still want to stay there for awhile.

      • Yumitolesson says:

        my grandmother who survived the war was devastated when I told her I was moving to America..she asked me to definitely return after getting a degree in college. She has never left Japan and she doesn’t have anti gaijin attitude but definitely believes that America is a very dangerous country in which everybody has guns at home. 🙁 but hopefully Japan will change slowly and accept diversity.

        • noliving says:

          So does you surviving America resulted in your grandmother changing her position on how violent she thinks America is by any chance?

        • Tess de la Serna says:

          I know the feeling. My mother was so worried that I moved to America with my husband. She did not believe that it is the place to raise children because of the “loose moral values” and lots of killings; that is what we always see in the American movies. She was also worried that I don’t have anyone to help me (helpers/servants), unlike Philippines. I have been in America for a long time and thrive but she still worries. ^_^

    • Anthony Joh says:

      This is a big problem here as I see it. Age based hierarchy is such a huge factor in Japanese culture. Unfortunately I don’t see it being used to mentor the younger generation but rather for the older generation to maintain their status.

      • Yumitolesson says:

        my younger sisters told me how their bosses were treating them at work and simply..I wouldn’t have tolerated that myself but it is a way of living..and the weird part is that some bosses were yelling at them out of “love” and fortunately my sisters have good support system so they are able to continue working, switching jobs but they worry about their age

  • Tess de la Serna says:

    I had seen a YouTube video of the Suicide Forest, scenes of people who hung themselves. It is very sad.

  • Edson Keity Takamune says:

    Ok, do you really believe in this statistics? I live in Japan too and even here I can’t say the government is 100% trustable. Things in Japan are all hidden.

    • Japanese Bull Fighter says:

      No, I don’t believe Japanese statistics absolutely. I don’t believe any statistics absolutely. For example, specialists on suicide in the US are generally agreed that the US suicide count is substantially understated. At the same time “Things in Japan are all hidden” strikes me as a statement based on ethnic prejudice and nothing more. Further, the statistics I cited come from the same source that has been the basis of the thirty-thousand plus claim. That source does in fact show more than thirty thousand suicides in past years. Are you saying that this source was valid when it was showing larger numbers but is invalid now that it is showing a decline?

      • Jessica Ealey says:

        The statistics don’t matter, it’s still high and like the author of the article suggests preventable. The stigma for mental health issues isridiculously high in japan. Recently when applying for teaching jobs, i was asked for a 5 year medical history and then straight after asked if there had been any occurances of depression in the last 5yrs. This was really common on all applications. And the majority excluded you from applying if this was the case. In the uk that would be discrimination and wouldn’t be acceptable, its against the law. Japans attitude towards mental health issues means people are taking their lives because of an archaic stigma. Japan is such a modern beautiful country but mental health awareness and acceptance needs to radically change for places like the suicide forest to return to being appreciated as a place of natural beauty rather than a suicide spot.

        • Yumitolesson says:

          we can’t really control depression without professional help, medication etc..and the sad part is many Japanese people feel ashamed of their depression because of the stigma, employers often mandate physical exams but I need to investigate more on these..definitely Japanese gov. should invest more money in mental health issues..

          • James Paul says:

            Many people all over the world feel ashamed of mental illness. Its not just a Japan thing….

        • Japanese Bull Fighter says:

          If the “statistics don’t matter,” then why did the author of the article cite them? A fraction of suicides might be preventable, but no country has a zero suicide rate. One reason for the sharp decline in the number of suicides in Japan since 2009 is thought to be aggressive anti-suicide programs, especially on the part of the prefectures. I have NEVER been asked about anything pertaining to mental health on job applications in Japan, and I am in the teaching profession. Further, you clearly do not know much about suicide in Britain. The Equality Act 2010 bans discrimination but it does not prohibit employers from asking about physical or mental health although applicants are under no legal obligation to answer. Do a Google search on a combination of the key words “popular suicide spots uk” and you can get ranked lists. The “suicide forest” in Japan is hardly a Japanese peculiarity. I don’t know where you get your UK experience, but it seems that just about every time I am London there are delays somewhere on the rail network because of “an incident on the line.” Do you know what this term means? It is the British equivalent of jinnshin jiko 人身事故 in Japanese. In other words, a suicide. I would suggest that before you make UK-Japan comparisons you make sure you at least know what the situation is in Britain before generalizing about Japan.

  • Brandon A English says:

    Looking within is the only way to view one’s true value. It cannot be done by the government, and only by the efforts of individuals can this be changed on a grand scale. It is not the other way around.

  • Wandering Bodhi says:

    Thanks for your insight into this Yumi.

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