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Why is Suicide Rampant in Japan?

Why is Suicide Rampant in Japan?

Aokigahara Forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji is a popular destination for Japanese to commit suicide. (Warning: The linked Web site has disturbing images that shouldn't be viewed by anyone.)

The number of suicides in Japan surpassed 30,000 for the 14th year in a row in 2011, according to the National Police Agency.

The numbers released this month show 30,513 people took their lives last year, down 1,177 from 2010.

At a suicide rate of 28.3 per 100,000, Japan ranks third among OECD countries, and seventh worldwide.

Suicide affects anyone who remains in Japan for an extended period of time. I’ve lost count of how many times my commute has been delayed because someone jumped in front of a train somewhere on the line. I once witnessed a high school girl who jumped in front of a freight train at my station. It is a horrible way to die. You don’t just go splat and die on impact. She was still alive when I saw her carried off on a stretcher, but died on the way to the hospital.

Editorials are published in a flurry around this time every year as the latest numbers are reported. I’d like to take this opportunity to add my own perspective to this devastating issue.

Historical tolerance

Many Western observers are quick to point out Japan’s historical precedence for suicide. Samurai were known to atone for mistakes by committing hara-kiri. Kamikaze pilots in World War II would crash their zeros into a target with no regard for their own lives. Westerners assume Japan’s high suicide rate is an extension of this precedent, but the Japanese themselves find this assumption offensive. The Japanese usually refer to overwork, unemployment and bullying as the primary reasons people commit suicide.

However, I’ve found in my conversations with Japanese people over the years that the historical precedence for suicide has made it more tolerated than in Judeo-Christian societies. When I explained the Christian attitude toward suicide, that it was “self-murder” and sinful, they scoffed at the notion and clearly thought it was quaint. Because suicide doesn’t have the moral stigma that it does in the West, it is more tolerated.


Stress from overwork tends to be the most readily cited reason for suicide. In 2008, fatigue from work accounted for 47 percent of the suicides.

The Japanese work ethic has roots in the Zen Buddhist value of hard work. Hard work is not a means to an end, but the end itself. The Japanese employer-employee relationship resembles the warlord-retainer relationship of the not-too-distant feudal era. Employees are expected to show their loyalty for their companies through personal sacrifice. A boss will hold up an employee who died from karoshi (exhaustion) as a role model for the other employees. Therefore Japanese workers are expected to stay at work until sundown, and are often obligated to go to after-work office parties to bond with coworkers and clients over drinks. My Japanese wife said she barely saw her dad growing up when he worked for Toyota. He would leave for work before she got up for school and come home after she went to bed.

This work environment is clearly stressful, but is unlikely to change due to societal pressure to work hard–or rather, appear to work hard. An efficient employee who accomplishes more than any of his coworkers, but leaves as soon as his shift is over, will be regarded as lazy.


The flip side to the coin is suicide because of unemployment.

I once saw a Tweet from a Japanese man who wrote, “In Japan, you will die from overwork if you have a job, or commit suicide if you don’t.”

Japan is famous for its lifelong employment practices. A job not only comes with security, but also full benefits and even subsidized housing.

Unfortunately, layoffs have become more and more common since the end of the “bubble” era in 1990. So when a lifelong employee loses his job, he also loses his home and safety net. If he were to get another job, he would again start at the bottom of his new company, since the idea of a “free agent” is foreign to Japan. A middle-aged man starting all over in an entry-level position is clearly untenable, and is another factor leading to suicide.


The most common cause for suicide among children is bullying. While there have been campaigns to address school bullying, it is still rampant. (A poster at the school I taught at displayed an anti-bullying haiku: “Ijime wa ne / Yattara iken / Zettai ni,” “As for bullying / Don’t do it / Definitely.”)

I think the reason anti-bullying campaigns in Japanese schools have failed is because bullying is endemic to Japanese society. The children are simply mimicking the adults around them.

One anthropological theory for why bullying is prevalent in Japan claims bullying has roots in rice agriculture. Growing rice requires the pooling of resources and communal cooperation. One man doing his own thing could potentially sabotage the entire harvest. Therefore, Japanese society utilizes bullying to pressure everyone to conform.

Again, this is a cultural element that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Stigma against mental illness

Finally, the poor state of mental health in Japan makes it difficult for people suffering mental illnesses or work-related stress to get the help they need.

The Japanese have a strong stigma against mental illness. I know of an American woman who was fired from her job as an English teacher for seeing a psychiatrist. The rationale for firing someone for seeing a psychiatrist seems to go along the lines of: “If one of our clients saw you go to a shrink, he would assume you’re unhappy because of your job, and it would be bad for business.” Employees are expected to put up and shut up. A person going to a mental health clinic will have to cover their face and hurry through the door… This is in a country where pink salons (brothels specializing in oral sex) often don’t have doors and a passer-by on the street can look inside and easily see what is going on.

Mental health is not covered by insurance, and it could cost as much as 200,000 yen ($240) for a 10-minute session with a psychiatrist, in which the doctor will simply diagnose the patient’s illness and prescribe some meds. Doctors usually don’t listen to the patient’s problems and offer advice. For this, Japanese men go to hostess clubs, where they pay hundreds of dollars for a pretty girl to sit and drink next to him while she pretends to be interested in what he says–something of a continuation of the geisha tradition.

While the suicide rate may improve with economic conditions, I think the above cultural factors will continue to keep suicide rates high in Japan.



Dustin Dye

Dustin Dye is the author of the YAKUZA DYNASTY series, available through the Amazon Kindle.

He lived in Okayama, Japan, where he taught English at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for three years. He is a graduate from the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

His interest in Japan began in elementary school after seeing Godzilla fight Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. But it wasn't until he discovered Akira Kurosawa's films through their spaghetti Western remakes that he truly became fascinated in the people and culture of Japan.

He lives in Kansas with his wife, daughter and guinea pig.

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E-mail him: [email protected]