More Than Just a Number

More Than Just a Number

Bare statistics mask the human cost of Japan’s high suicide rate


Originally published on on March 2010

Japan in 2009 was a busy place—for the Grim Reaper. A National Police Agency report revealed that there were 32,753 suicides in the country last year, exceeding 30,000 for the 12th consecutive year and accounting for 3 percent of all deaths. Current World Health Organization figures show that of OECD countries, Japan has the second highest suicide rate, at 24.7 per 100,000 people. Only Russians kill themselves at a greater rate.

Unfortunately, in a country of 135 million people, such statistics lend themselves to abstraction, so let’s put a human face on things. Imagine standing at your local train station from morning to night and having to choose six people an hour to take their own lives. Who will it be? The salaryman? The young mother? The high school student?

Last year, the government set up a task force to address the suicide crisis, but there have been a number of such efforts made over the past decade, and the rate shows no sign of declining. This is because the task forces deal not in cures but in treatments, like the latest action of assigning mental health professionals to “Hello Work” employment offices. The rationale is that unemployment is a factor in suicide, but other countries with greater economic woes have much lower suicide rates. Why? Because a perpetually high suicide rate doesn’t just reflect a set of temporary circumstances—it’s a symptom of a dysfunctional society.

This means that the only way to permanently reduce the rate is to deal with socio-cultural factors like, for one example, the historical romanticization of suicide as an honorable way of taking responsibility. Yet there’s no sign of that happening; instead, we had former LDP heavyweight Kunio Hatoyama pronouncing last summer that suicidal tendencies are “obviously” genetically inherited. In addition to being so untrue as to leave one slack-jawed in stupefaction, Hatoyama’s remarks were either a cheap, distasteful way to avoid assigning responsibility or a profoundly inhumane political “shoganai.

But if not genetics, then what? In his novel A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby offers a striking insight: people commit suicide not because they hate life, but because they love it and can’t endure separation from it. I take this to mean that we all want to lead lives as we choose but are constrained from doing so. The stronger the constraints, the wider and more painful the separation.

Illustration by Shane Busato

These constraints can take many forms. There are socio-cultural ones, like the pressure placed upon you by family, your company, peer groups, or society in general. Then there are personal or emotional ones, like relationship problems, depression and shyness.

Yes, shyness. I think it’s no coincidence that in the US, where people are encouraged to be outgoing, the birthrate is high and the suicide rate low, while in Japan, where shyness is seen as a virtue, the situation is the opposite. Put simply, outgoing people are better able to lead the kind of life they want to, while shy people are held back from doing so.

So I was appalled to read last year that shyness is the quality that Japanese parents most desire for their children, evidently because it is “cute.” Well, cute it may be from the outside, but I speak from experience when I say it is torture to actually live that way. Being shy results in a kind of viciously frustrating social paralysis, a fear of negative reactions so deeply ingrained that it leaves the sufferer unable to socialize, however much they might want to. So when parents say they want their children to be shy, they’re saying that for the sake of “cuteness” they want them to live in fear and frustration.

And it’s this kind of shallow, appearance-over-reality attitude that the government needs to address if it’s serious about reducing the suicide rate. The idea that shyness is good, the belief that hardship should be endured in lonely silence rather than dealt with, the old adage that “the nail that sticks up will be hammered down”—all of these constraining social notions need to be consigned to history, where they belong.

Of course, some will say I have no place questioning how Japanese society functions, that I’m an arrogant foreign meddler, that nothing needs to change. Well, are those people happy to accept a human cost of 30,000 suicides a year for the sake of preserving this lofty, abstract ideal of the “Japanese Way”? If they were asked to hand-pick six people an hour, I bet their tune would change.

Not so abstract now, is it?