Nearly 100 Japanese commit suicide each day
An average of almost 100 Japanese people killed themselves each day last year, according to figures out today, dealing a serious blow to a government campaign to drastically reduce the suicide rate by 2016.
A total of 33,093 people committed suicide in 2007, up 3% from 2006 and the 10th year in a row the number has exceeded 30,000, the national police agency said. The figure is the second highest after the 34,427 recorded suicides in 2003.
Depression was identified as the main factor in around a fifth of cases, followed by physical illness and debt.
The number of elderly people who killed themselves rose 9% from a year earlier as Japan grapples with a rapidly aging society and rising poverty among pensioners.
People aged over 60 made up the biggest individual group of victims, rising to a record high of 36.6% of the total, the agency said.
More than half the elderly suicides were connected with ill-health, but a sizeable number were due to financial pressures, the report said.
"I think the number will continue to rise as more elderly people find themselves isolated and struggling financially," a counsellor at Inochi no Denwa, Japan's biggest telephone counselling service, told the Guardian.
"Their traditional support mechanisms - the welfare state and extended families - are under threat, so I'm very pessimistic."
Japan's senior citizens - who now make up more than 20% of the population - have been hit hard by the pensions squeeze and healthcare reforms designed to rein in public spending.
The statistics make grim reading for health officials, who last summer unveiled a $220m package of measures, including better counselling and stricter monitoring of suicide websites, which were designed to cut the suicide rate by more than 20% over ten years.
Yuzo Kato, the director of the Tokyo Suicide Prevention Centre, dismissed the government target as "meaningless", and said more should be done to counter the cultural stigma attached to mental illness.
"Health professionals are not interested in suicides unless they are psychiatrists, so patients are very unlikely to discuss their problems with their GP," he said.
"Japan's national character is such that people are socially conditioned to hide their pain, to avoid troubling others by opening up."
Yamanashi prefecture's suicide rate, at 39 people in every 100,000, was the worst in the country. The area is home to Aokigahara, an ancient forest at the foot of Mount Fuji and the country's most notorious suicide spot.
UN figures show that 24 in 10,000 people commit suicide in Japan, almost double the rate in the US. Among the G8 group of countries only Russia has a higher suicide rate.
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
guardian.co.uk(Thursday June 19, 2008)
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