Japan targets fewer suicides amid 'deaths by overwork'

Govt aims for 30% drop by 2026 as rate is second-highest in Asia

Japan, with the second-highest suicide rate in Asia, aims to bring it down by 30 per cent by 2026 as the country grapples with "death by overwork" cases that have highlighted, yet again, its notoriety as a pressure-cooker society.

Two cases, in particular, sparked much soul-searching and spurred the government to find ways to reduce the number of deaths.

On Christmas Day in 2015, a 24- year-old female employee, pushed to the brink by overwork and workplace harassment at advertising giant Dentsu, took her own life.

In March, a 23-year-old construction worker, who clocked 200 hours of overtime a month working on Tokyo's new Olympic stadium, committed suicide in a case deemed to be karoshi or death by overwork.

Mr Yutaka Motohashi, director of the Japan Support Centre for Suicide Countermeasures, told a media briefing on Tuesday that it was critical for Japan to focus on the root societal causes of depression.


Last month, Japan adopted new landmark guidelines that are a stark departure from its previous approach of treating depression cases solely as a mental health issue.

  • Steps to ensure mental health

  • TOKYO • Japan adopted proactive countermeasures last month in a bid to reduce the number of depression cases leading to suicide.

    Among the steps are enhanced measures for mothers who suffer from post-partum depression, with a government survey showing that as many as 40,000 women might require support each year.

    The government has pledged to monitor their mental health and living conditions following childbirth, through health check-ups. Previously, maternal care was focused on the prenatal stage.

    Each year, on average, more than 300 children in elementary, junior high or high schools kill themselves.

    Previously, the focus had been on how to value their lives as well as the medical aspect of mental health issues. Now, the Education Ministry is focusing on how at-risk children can seek help via SOS channels.

    And to curb the longstanding issue of overwork, the Labour Ministry has taken the step of blacklisting companies that violate manpower guidelines. There is also a concerted effort to promote mental health issues at the workplace.

    Still, Mr Yutaka Motohashi, a suicide prevention expert who chaired a council that drafted the new guidelines, on Tuesday identified loopholes that need to be addressed.

    For one thing, he said that though Japan is "gradually moving towards the direction of being more accommodating towards failure, policy measures are not quite adequate. If one becomes unemployed, it can be very hard to seek new jobs".

    He also noted the correlation between gambling addiction and suicide, with Japan having passed laws to allow integrated resorts (IRs).

    "The government is thinking of introducing some mental health countermeasures for the IRs. But having said so, the opening of IRs could still mean a higher suicide rate."

    Walter Sim

"We need to give more consideration to what leads people to fall into depression. We have to address the societal elements and economic factors. If not, we will not get a comprehensive view of the situation," said Mr Motohashi, who chaired a council that drafted the new guidelines.

Newly enshrined in the revised guidelines is a pledge by Japan to "realise a society in which no one will be driven to take one's own life", as the government labelled the situation as critical.

This is even as the number of suicides in Japan has been declining, falling to a 22-year low of 21,897 cases last year, according to statistics from the National Police Agency. But Japan's suicide rate, measured in terms of the number of deaths per 100,000 people, remained high at 18.5 in 2015. This is the sixth-highest in the world and the second-highest in Asia after South Korea, where there were 27.3 suicides per 100,000 people in 2014.

Suicide remained the top cause of death among those aged 15 to 39, despite a steady decline for those in other age brackets.

By 2026, Japan hopes to bring the rate down to 13, which will put it in line with the United States and Germany. This means lowering the number of suicides to below 16,000 cases each year.

The number of suicides in Japan surged in the late 1990s due to a debilitating financial crisis that left many bankrupt, remaining at above 30,000 cases for more than 10 years. The peak was the 34,427 cases recorded in 2003.

Today, societal causes that lead to suicide in Japan include excessive overwork, bullying in schools, insufficient postnatal support for mothers and isolation among the elderly, Mr Motohashi said.

And as government studies have shown children to be more prone to committing suicide on or around Sept 1, near the start of a new semester, non-profit entities have also been boosting their suicide prevention efforts for children.

A 2015 White Paper on suicides noted: "Increased pressure or emotional dismay tend to hit children after vacations."

The new guidelines also eschew a top-down approach that is rubber- stamped in Tokyo, empowering local governments in all 47 prefectures and 1,719 municipalities to tailor concrete steps to address suicide issues in their own regions.

One such example is Aokigahara, in Yamanashi prefecture, dubbed the "suicide forest", where police patrols have been intensified and trained counsellors deployed to look out for troubled individuals.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2017, with the headline 'Japan targets fewer suicides amid 'deaths by overwork''. Print Edition | Subscribe