Suicides & Karoshi Exploded In Japan

July 15, 1999 New York Times

In Japan, Mired in Recession, Suicides Soar


[T]OKYO -- In their annual sweep of the Aokigahara woods at the end of last year, police officers found 73 bodies. There's nothing unusual about finding bodies in Aokigahara. The lush and sprawling forest nestled at the foot of Mount Fuji has long been one of the most popular places in Japan for suicides. What's different now is the number: a year earlier, the police recovered 55 bodies.

Japanese are grappling with unemployment that has risen to record levels as struggling companies slash their work forces and cut back on hiring new suicides.

A total of 32,863 people committed suicide in 1998, both the largest number and the highest rate of suicide recorded since the police began keeping records in 1947. "I don't recall anything like this ever before," said Yukiko Nishihara, who has run a suicide prevention line for more than 20 years in Osaka and now Tokyo.

Suicide in Japan has little of the stigma it carries in Western societies; in literature, history and even today, suicides are often portrayed as noble, a matter of conscience or an honorable form of protest. The rate of suicide in the United States in 1997 was 11.1 per 100,000, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control, compared with 19.3 per 100,000 in Japan.

In recent years, though, there has been increasing criticism of suicide as irresponsible to survivors. And for years, suicide rates in Japan have been lower than those in several other industrialized countries. Statistics comparing this year's suicide rate in Japan to that in other countries do not exist.

This year, however, what caused most people here to catch their breath was the increase in the number of middle-aged men who killed themselves. There was a 44.6 percent rise in suicides among men aged 40 to 59, according to the police.

Japanese were also shocked by the number of young men who took their lives. Some 40 percent more men in their 20's committed suicide last year. Typically, this is a stable time in Japanese life, when young men could count on becoming "shaiin," literally members of society, by entering the work force. Now, jobs are harder to find.