New figures released by the Japanese authorities this week show that the country’s suicide rate is still climbing despite government efforts to dramatically reduce the figure by 2016, and the fastest rise appears to be among elderly Japanese, a growing sector of the population that is also experiencing rising poverty.

Nearly 100 Japanese killed themselves every day in 2007, that is over 33,000 people in the year, a rise of 3 per cent on the year before, and the tenth year in a row that the figure has exceeded 30,000 said Japan’s national police agency.

According to a report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, depression was singled out as the main reason in about 20 per cent of cases, followed by physical illness and debt. The suicide rate of the over 60s in Japan rose 9 per cent from 2006 to 2007, to a record high of 36.6 per cent of all victims, the biggest group in 2007.

Pensioners in Japan now make up one fifth of the country’s population and they have been hit hard by pension and welfare system reforms intended to reduce public spending.

According to a report in the Telegraph, health problems were given as the most frequent reason, linked to over 50 per cent of the suicides among the elderly last year, followed by financial worries at 15 per cent.

Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Chuo University in Tokyo told the newspaper that:

“For those aged above 60, economic and health reasons were closely linked. The figure underlined the fact that many old people were financially struggling, which could easily cause poor health.”

Other media reports have suggested that another contributor to the high suicide rate among pensioners in Japan is the breakdown of the support that used to be there from extended families, which has led to greater isolation and poverty among older Japanese.

None of this is good news for the Japanese government who launched a 220m dollar campaign last year to dramatically cut the suicide rate by 2016.

Critics of the government’s campaign say they are targetting the wrong thing and should be doing more to remove the stigma of mental illness, and depression in particular. Many elderly Japanese are not likely to talk to their GP about mental illness, they are still of a traditional mindset that believes one should not be open about mental problems.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Japan’s suicide rate is about 51 per 100,000 people, with men committing suicide more than twice at the rate of women. This is more than twice the rate in the United States (22 per 100,000), and three times that of the United Kingdom (15 per 100,000), but less than some Eastern European countries such as Lithuania (92 per 100,000) and Ukraine (62 per 100,000).

Last month the Japanese government reported the results of a survey that showed one in five Japanese adults said they had considered killing themselves and half of them said movies and television were to blame for the high suicide rate because they either glossed over the subject or showed too many suicides.

Over three quarters of the respondents also said they thought the Internet should be regulated to stop suicide sites from describing ways to commit suicide, reported AFP.

There has been a spate recently of suicide attempts using hydrogen sulphide gas that had been produced following instructions that are easily found on the Internet. According to police reports, over 500 Japanese have killed themselves this year by inhaling hydrogen sulphide fumes.

Sources: Guardian, Telegraph, WHO, AFP.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD