Tackling the youth suicide problem
2016-09-23, Cai Hong

The jagged cliffs of Tojinbo, in Fukui prefecture on Japan’s west coast, are popular with people who commit suicide. Every year, as many as 25 jump off the cliffs to end their lives.

But these days the cliffs are occupied day and night by Pokemon Go players, and a Fuji TV program reported that the location saw a drop in the suicide rate in August.

Tojinbo is one of the few so-called Pokestops in the region and is believed to draw crowds from afar in their attempts to catch some rare digital creatures.

In Japan and much of the rest of the world, Pokemon Go — the free augmented reality game that requires a mobile device and Google Maps — has sparked public safety fears over traffic accidents, distracted pedestrians and dangerous trespassing.

In Tojinbo, though, it appears to be saving lives.

However, Japan still has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world. The news of two middle-school students committing suicide in the northeastern Aomori prefecture in August sent shock waves across Japan.

A 12-year-old boy hung himself on Aug 19, leaving behind a 10-page suicide note that indicated he had been bullied at school. And a 13-year-old girl jumped in front of an oncoming train on Aug 25. A suicide note on her smartphone asked the bullies to “never bully (anyone) again”.

The parents of both students said bullying was a contributing factor to the suicides, and they requested that the authorities launch thorough investigations.

More than 300 schoolchildren take their own lives for a variety of reasons every year, according to English-language newspaper The Japan Times.

The suicide rate of Japanese schoolchildren increases when summer and spring vacations end, with most of the cases reported on Sept 1 when many schools reopen for a new session, according to official figures from 1972 through 2013.

Experts’ explanation for this: Teens who are bullied fear returning to school.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among 15- to 39-year-olds in Japan. The results of a poll released on Sept 7 by the Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation said that one in four people in Japan had seriously contemplated suicide, and more than 500,000 attempted to do so last year alone.

The survey showed that people are at higher risk of committing suicide if they have been exposed to domestic abuse and violence, poverty, or are alcohol dependent.

The Japan Times said young people in the country are suffering from higher levels of depression than in the past. According to research by Hokkaido University professor Kenzo Denda, one in 12 Japanese elementary school children and one in four junior high students suffer from clinical depression.

In Japan, depression is thought to be widespread but largely hidden and undiagnosed. Up until the late 1990s, “depression” was a word rarely heard in the country, outside of psychiatric circles.

When Japanese experience depression, doctors say, they prefer to imagine something is wrong with their character rather than their heads, and a cultural impulse known as gaman, or the will to endure, takes precedence over medical care.

In 2013, the suicide rate in Japan was 21.4 deaths per 100,000 people — well above that of other high-income countries (12.7 deaths per 100,000 people), according to the World Health Organization’s 2014 report. 

Japanese National Police Agency statistics, however, show that 24,025 people killed themselves in 2015, compared with 32,863 in 1998.

Pushed by non-profit organizations such as Lifelink, Japanese legislators passed a suicide prevention law in 2006, pledging to reduce suicide rates and declaring suicide a social, rather than just a private, problem.

In 2015, Japan brought in workplace stress checks. A completed questionnaire covering causes and symptoms of stress is assessed by doctors and nurses, leading to medical care for those who need it — with results kept confidential from employers. This is mandatory for companies with more than 50 staff, and smaller businesses are encouraged to do the same.

Suicide rates among middle-aged men and senior citizens are falling in the country. But the rate of suicide among young people is still high.

The root causes of suicides are hard to pin down. 

In the past, the Japanese ritualized suicide and associated it with the preservation of honor. During the time of the samurai, a defeated warrior would be expected to perform seppuku (disembowelment) rather than become a prisoner of war and bring shame on his associates and family. 

Thousands of kamikaze fighters carried out suicide attacks for the “honor” of Japan in World War II.

In modern days, economic woes are believed to be a catalyst for many cases of self-destruction. Suicide rates increased sharply in the mid-1990s as Japan’s economy stuttered.

Companies compel their young employees to work excessively long hours without overtime pay. “Peer-pressure overtime” is a common feature of Japanese life. 

In 2015, a record 2,310 cases of karoshi, or death by overwork, were reported, way up from the hundreds of cases documented in the 1980s.

Also, public figures embroiled in scandal have sometimes chosen to take their own lives.

I have lost count of how many times my commute has been delayed because of “human accidents”, the catch-all term Japan uses when people are found on the tracks while the trains are running.

Some subway stations have installed barriers and automated gates on their platforms to prevent jumpers. Shin-Koiwa Station, one of Tokyo’s suicide hotspots, is piloting new approaches like playing music and illuminating its platforms with blue lighting to calm, relax and soothe travelers.

Though there is no hard evidence on how many people these steps have saved, Shin-Koiwa Station deserves applause for its suicide prevention awareness.


The author is China Daily’s bureau chief in Tokyo.

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