June 1, 2006

Suicides up in Japan, overwork illnesses also rise

TOKYO -- The number of Japanese who took their own lives rose slightly in 2005 to stay above 30,000 for the eighth straight year, with the number of serious illnesses and deaths blamed on overwork also climbing.

Work-induced stress is not a new problem in workaholic Japan, where the suicide rate is the second highest among the Group of Eight industrialized nations, but official recognition of the issue has lagged.

According to police figures released on Thursday, a total of 32,552 people committed suicide in 2005, up from 32,325 last year but still below the record 34,427 in 2003.

More than two-thirds of the suicides were men, with the main reason given being health problems followed by economic troubles.

Suicides rose above 30,000 in 1998 amid an economic slump and have remained above that level since then.

No religious prohibition exists against taking one's own life in Japan, where suicide was once a form of ritual atonement for samurai warriors and in modern times is a way to escape failure or save loved ones from embarrassment or financial loss.

Masahiro Yamada, a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University who has written about a widening income gap in Japan, has said most of the increase since 1998 has been from men who were middle-aged or older and had been laid off or whose businesses had failed.

Japan's suicide rate in 2004 was 25.3 per 100,000 people, government data says.

According to earlier data from the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in Japan was 24.1 per 100,000 in 2000, the second highest among Group of Eight industrialized nations after Russia's 39.4. Rates for other G8 nations included 18.4 for France and 10.4 in the United States.

Problems in the workplace were cited as the third most common reason for suicides, NHK national television said, without giving further details.

Overwork may well be one key factor, however.

Statistics released by the Health Ministry late on Wednesday showed that a record 330 Japanese were officially recognized by the government in 2005 as suffering from serious illnesses caused by overwork, such as stroke or heart problems, up from 294 the previous year.

Of these, 157 died, up from 150 in 2004 but still short of the record 160 in 2002.

A ministry official said it was difficult to give a reason for the rise but said it was most likely due to an increased number of applications for official recognition, which helps clear the way for workers' compensation payments.

Last year also saw a 25 percent increase in the number of people applying for recognition of stress-induced depression and other mental problems, to 656.

"I believe this is mainly due to people no longer feeling ashamed to admit that they are suffering mentally from work-induced stress," the ministry official said.

However, the number of those officially recognized as suffering from such illness dipped slightly, to 127 from 130 in 2004.

Political officials said on Wednesday that Japan plans a raft of measures to deal with its suicide rate, including requiring central and local governments to take steps to prevent suicides.