Why So Many Suicides in Japan?

It’s the economy, stupid. And the health-care system. And the religious beliefs. And the …

Japanese Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka

Japan’s agriculture minister hanged himself Monday amid allegations of bid-rigging and padding government expenses. The following day, an executive allegedly linked to one of the scams leapt to his death. In 2005, 32,552 people killed themselves in Japan—one of the highest suicide rates among industrialized nations. Why are there so many suicides in Japan?

There’s no single factor, but experts point to a combination of economic woes, poor mental-health resources, lack of religious prohibition, and cultural acceptance of the practice. * The economic recession that hit in the late 1990s seemed to increase the number of suicides, which jumped by 35 percent in 1998. Japan’s high-interest loan system and historically strict bankruptcy laws may have contributed to this effect. But the Japanese suicide rate remains elevated, even though the economy has since recovered. Even before the recession, the rate was already a third higher than that of the United States. (Not that Japan is setting any records: Hungary, Estonia, and Latvia, among others, have more suicides per capita than Japan.)

The stigma attached to mental illness—and the psychiatrists who treat it—may also contribute to the high suicide rates. Antidepressant SSRIs didn’t become widely available until 1993, and as of 2003 you could get Zoloft and Prozac only by ordering them through the mail. (Japan has been slow to introduce other drugs, too: The birth control pill, which was legalized in 1999, remains unpopular.) In 2006, the government began introducing reforms that would create suicide hot lines and make counselors available in schools and at work.

The country’s legal system doesn’t do much to deter suicides, either. The penal code has no provision for killing yourself, which means the government can’t seize your property or send you to jail after a failed attempt.  By contrast, some U.S. states do criminalize suicide (although they rarely enforce it). *

Cultural factors play an important role as well. Whereas Christianity, Judaism, and Islam proscribe suicide, Japan’s most popular religions—Shinto and Buddhism—are more permissive. (Critics of this theory point to China’s significantly lower suicide rate as evidence that religious differences aren’t to blame.) In addition, suicide is considered a legitimate solution to vexing problems. If a massive debt is going to make you a burden to your family, or a political scandal is going to taint those around you, some consider it not just permissible but responsible to protect them by offing yourself.

Suicide looms large in Japanese history and literature. Samurai warriors were famous for their willingness to disembowel themselves, a ritual called seppuku or hara-kiri. During World War II, kamikaze fighters rigged their own planes with explosives before divebombing into targets. In 1970, the ritual suicide of Japanese author and playwright Yukio Mishima drew international attention to the practice. In recent years, two trends have garnered particular attention: suicide as the result of schoolyard bullying and suicide pacts among groups of people who meet on the Internet. Because of the latter, the government started offering families free software to block access to suicide-related Web sites.

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Explainer thanks Mark D. West of the University of Michigan, author of Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle: The Rules of Scandal in Japan and the United States.

Correction, June 1, 2007: This article originally referred to the insured as the beneficiary. It also stated that most Japanese insurance companies cover suicide, while U.S. insurance companies almost never do. Companies in both countries tend to offer similar degrees of coverage. (Return to the corrected sentences.)