July 2, 1999

Japan Suicide Rate Surges in 1998


Filed at 6:43 p.m. EDT

By The Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) -- Amid a stubborn recession and rising layoffs, more Japanese killed themselves in 1998 than in any other year on record.

The number of middle-aged people taking their lives surged, as a wave of corporate restructuring forced employees on once secure career tracks suddenly out of jobs.

The number of suicides in 1998 hit 32,863, a 34.7 percent increase over the previous year and the highest since the government started tracking it in 1947, the National Policy Agency said Friday.

Japan also recorded its highest suicide rate: 26.0 suicides per 100,000 population, just below the country with the world's steepest rate -- Finland with 27.0 suicides per 100,000 people.

The spread of suicide comes at a time of growing unease in Japanese society in general. Crime, divorce and dissatisfaction with public systems such as education are all on the rise.

The startling numbers were top news in Japan, despite a deeply ingrained tradition that has long regarded suicide as an honorable way to atone for failure.

Even before the announcement Friday, the spread of suicides linked to overwork or painful corporate restructuring because of the recession had been causing mounting concern. The Health and Welfare Ministry made a similar report earlier this year, with somewhat smaller numbers.

In one case last year, three businessmen rented out rooms at the same hotel, shared a final drink and hanged themselves. Earlier this year, a tire company worker who felt pressured into early retirement stabbed himself to death in the company president's suite.

Of all suicides in 1998, those committed clearly because of economic difficulties accounted for 6,058, an increase of 70.4 percent. Illness was believed to be the reason for 11,499 suicides, up 26.9 percent.

Men overall were hit especially hard: 23,013 males and 9,850 females committed suicide in 1998. Suicides were most prevalent among by those in their 50s, numbering 7,898 in 1998, up 45.7 percent from a year earlier, while a total of 5,359 people in their 40s killed themselves, up 27.6 percent.

The report also showed major increases of between 30 percent and 45 percent in suicides by the unemployed, the self-employed and corporate managers.

The trend has also brought on a spate of lawsuits. In March, a Japanese court ruled for the first time that a company employee was driven to suicide by overwork and ordered the government to compensate his family.

``Middle-aged salarymen just can't cope with the current situation,'' Hiroshi Kawahito, a lawyer who works on such cases, was quoted as saying by Nihon Keizai newspaper Friday. ``A social framework to support them is urgently needed.''

Young people were not spared.

Seventeen elementary school kids killed themselves in 1998, up from 12 the previous year, while junior high school student suicides increased by 40 to 102. At high schools, 220 students took their own lives in 1998, an increase of 51.

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