May 10, 2006

Japan suicides seen staying high as income gap widens

By George Nishiyama

TOKYO (Reuters) - The number of suicides in Japan is likely
to have exceeded 30,000 for the eighth straight year in 2005,
and analysts say a widening income gap is partly to blame for
the nation's stubbornly high suicide rate.

There were 28,240 cases of suicides in the January-November
period last year, a Health Ministry official said on Wednesday,
which is likely to mean the number compiled separately by
police, and used by the government as the official count, will
top 30,000 for all of 2005 given past trends.

Suicides rose in 1998 amid an economic slump and the number
of those who take their lives has exceeded 30,000 every year
since then.

"The bulk of the increase since 1998 is suicides by men who
are middle-aged or older and have either been laid off or whose
businesses have failed," said Masahiro Yamada, a professor at
Tokyo Gakugei University.

In 2004, there were 32,325 suicides in Japan, or 25.3 per
100,000 people, according to government data. Males accounted
for over two-thirds of the total and health problems were the
most common reason, followed by economic problems.

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

Yamada, who has written that an income gap in Japan has
widened recently following the breakdown of a traditional
social safety net such as lifetime employment, said a rising
risk of dropping out of the middle class was behind the high
suicide rate.

He said counseling and offering therapy would not prevent
suicides induced by such fears.

In a bid to bring down the number of suicides to pre-1998
levels over the next 10 years, the government unveiled a
package of measures in December.

But is mainly focuses on promoting counseling and building
more fences on train platforms to prevent people from jumping
in front of trains, a common method of suicide in Japan, as
well as trying to limit access to Internet sites that promote

No religious proscription exists against suicide in Japan
and it has long been seen as a way to escape failure or save
loved ones from shame or suffering economic hardship.

Analysts have also said if Japanese insurers stopped paying
life insurance claims for those who kill themselves, the number
of suicides triggered by economic problems would fall

In recent years, an increasing number of Japanese have died
in group suicides after meeting online via suicide Websites.
Police say the number of people who died in such group suicide
pacts totaled 54 in 2004, up from 34 in 2003.