Steady fall in suicides offers glimmer of hope in Japan

TOKYO: Fewer Japanese are taking their own lives, a positive sign in a country with one of the world's highest suicide rates.

The Health Ministry said Thursday that 21,897 people committed suicide in 2016, down from more than 30,000 in 2011 and the lowest number since 1994. Of those, 15,121 were male and 6,776 were female. It was the seventh straight year that the number of suicides had declined.

Experts say it's difficult to pinpoint a reason for the decline, attributing it to a combination of factors. The government has made a determined effort to tackle the issue, starting with national legislation in 2006. Consumer loan laws have been revised to try to keep people from taking on too much debt, while awareness campaigns have helped bring the issue into the public eye.

"Now we can talk about suicides," said Yasuyuki Shimuzu, founder of Lifelink, a nonprofit that lobbies for suicide-prevention measures. "I believe the change in environment has made it easier for the needy to seek help."

Before the good news, however, came bad news.

The number of suicides in Japan jumped sharply in 1998 to more than 30,000 and remained at that very elevated level for more than a decade. It was a year when Japan's economy fell into recession, and bankruptcies and unemployment soared. The suicide rate rose to about 26 per 100,000 people.

The only silver lining was that suicides didn't jump again after a deep recession in 2008-09. Then in 2010, the decline started and has been steady since then, bringing the number back to pre-1998 levels.

A closer look at the data shows that the main factors driving both the rise to more than 30,000 and the drop back to close to 20,000 were health issues and financial problems. The decline has been sharpest for people aged 50-59.

Experts say the steps taken since 2006 have been effective in addressing the socio-economic problems common among middle-aged men. Prevention efforts are shifting their focus to the elderly and young, whose suicide rates have not come down as much.

Even with the decline, Japan's suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000 people in 2016 remains high compared to most other countries. The US suicide rate is around 13 per 100,000, and the United Kingdom is under 10.

Shimizu said Japan should aim to get the number of suicides down to 14,000-15,000 per year.

The still-high suicide rate means Japan is a difficult place to live, a society that is not kind to troubled people, said Dr. Yutaka Motohashi, head of the government-funded Japan Support Center for Suicide Countermeasures.

"Suicide prevention is not a job for experts and special people supporting the cause, but it's for everyone," he said. "We can be a little kinder and try to reach out to others."