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Explained: Why suicides are rising in Japan amid the Covid-19 pandemic

What explains Japan's sudden surge in cases of suicide, and does the Covid-19 pandemic have a role in this?

Written by Deeptesh Sen , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: February 26, 2021 4:10:45 pm
Japan suicideA women-only subway car in Osaka, Japan on Feb. 15, 2021. Last year saw more women, but fewer men, take their own lives in Japan. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

Earlier this month, Japan appointed a Minister of Loneliness after the country’s suicide rate went up for the first time in 11 years. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga allotted the portfolio to Tetsushi Sakamoto, who is also in charge of tackling the country’s falling birth rate and revitalising the regional economy.

Speaking at a press conference after taking on the new role, Sakamoto said, “I hope to carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people.”

Japan’s suicide rate rose in 2020, with 20,919 people taking their lives according to data by the National Police Agency.

What explains this sudden surge in cases of suicide and does the pandemic have a role in this?

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Why are suicide rates rising in Japan?

Most experts believe that the problem of escalating suicides in Japan is tied to the country’s culture of loneliness. Japan’s ageing population — over 20% of the country’s population is more than 65 years old, which is the highest proportion for that category in the world — has created a huge section of middle-aged and older people who feel they have no one to turn to for help and company.

Since most ageing people do not socialise much, many of them die alone, with their bodies being discovered a long time after their death. The phenomenon is known as ‘kodokushi’, which means ‘lonely death’.

The country also has some of the longest working hours in the world, which leaves people with little opportunity to spend time with their friends or be engaged in hobbies they are interested in. While Japanese labour laws dictate that employed persons should work for a maximum of 8 hours a day, or 40 hours a week, this is hardly the case in reality. In fact, it was found during a government survey conducted in 2016 that over 25% of Japanese companies demand overtime of 80 hours every month, with the extra hours often being not paid for.

In fact, Japan has a term for sudden occupational mortality — ‘karoshi’, which means death due to overwork. Long hours at work without any time for recreation have created a largely unhappy population which often finds itself unable to cope with the pressure to the point of no return.

So common are instances of people jumping off buildings that many street corners in Japan carry the sign ‘Mind the sky’ as a warning for pedestrians who may be hit by a person falling to death.

Is Japan’s culture of loneliness to blame for the rise in suicide rates?

The line between solitude and loneliness becomes blurred in Japan — the term ‘kodoku’ is used to represent both in local language. In fact, the culture of self-isolation has spiralled to such extremes in the country that there are about one million people who live in absolute self-imposed confinement for many years with no contact with the outside world. These modern-day hermits are called ‘hikikomori’ — the term was coined in 1998 by Japanese psychiatrist Professor Tamaki Saito.

One such person, Nito Souji, who is a game developer and runs a popular YouTube channel, was recently in the news when it came to the fore that he has not left his apartment in 10 years.

The ‘hikikomori’ practise complete isolation — spatially, socially and psychologically — often after they went into withdrawal and started living in confinement after failing to fulfil their educational ambitions or being unsuccessful in getting jobs.

Japan has also been witnessing a rising trend of glorifying the culture of loneliness, with books that portrayed isolation as independence and a condition of superiority turning out to be bestsellers.

Some of the most popular books in this genre are Kodoku no Susume (Advice for the Lonely) by Hiroyuki Itsuki and Akiko Shimoju’s Gokujou no Kodoku (Top-notch Solitude). Kodoku no Gurume (The Lonely Gourmet), a food drama that celebrates the culture of loneliness, has run into several seasons and has a cult following across the country.

In a culture that continuously seeks to glorify loneliness, it often becomes extremely difficult for people to reach out or seek help when in mental distress.

Has the pandemic worsened the crisis?

Yes. The job losses due to the pandemic and the continuous exhortations to stay back at home worsened the crisis. More women have lost their jobs than men while others who had employment had a difficult time trying to balance work with domestic labour and child care.

A survey released by public broadcaster Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) in December last year found 26% of female workers reported employment problems since April, compared to 19% of men. In a separate poll run by NHK, 28% of women reported spending more time on housework during the pandemic, compared to 19% of men.

Moreover, popular Japanese film and television stars took their lives in succession last year, prompting experts to say they are instances of copycat suicides. After popular actress Yoko Takeuci died by suicide in September, the number of women killing themselves in the following month jumped by 90% as compared to the previous year.

Japan’s culture of loneliness and long work hours had already left a huge section of the population on the edge. The growing job losses and the increasing instances of domestic violence during the pandemic compelled many women to take their lives.

Even as male suicides fell last year, 6,976 women took their lives last year, which is nearly a 15% jump from the figures in 2019, The New York Times reported. Moreover, female suicide rate increased by 70% in October 2020 as compared to the same month in the previous year.

During the meeting when the final decision was taken to allot the portfolio of Minister of Loneliness to Tetsushi Sakamoto, the Prime Minister highlighted his concern for the escalating number of suicides among women.

“Women are suffering from isolation more (than men are) and the number of suicides is on a rising trend. I hope you will identify problems and promote policy measures comprehensively,” Suga told Sakamoto at the meeting.

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What is Japan doing to tackle the crisis?

The appointment of Sakamoto shows that Japan understands the gravity of the situation and is trying to make policy-level interventions to tackle the crisis.

Earlier, in 2018, the United Kingdom became the first country to appoint a Minister of Loneliness when the then Prime Minister Theresa May announced that Tracey Crouch, the under secretary for sport and civil society in the culture ministry, would take on the role.

Sakamto had said at the press conference held after his appointment that he would hold an emergency forum to listen to opinions from those who are helping people tackle the problems of loneliness and depression. Prime Minister Suga may attend the meeting.

The Japanese government on February 19 created an isolation/loneliness countermeasures office within the cabinet to look into issues such as suicide and child poverty.

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