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Japan and Suicide: Still no simple explanation

The recent suicide aboard a shinkansen bullet train in Japan was shocking, but not entirely unexpected.

That the man who took his own life did it by self-immolation and that it happened aboard a high-speed train system that has been remarkably incident-free during its 50 years in operation, was the shocking part. That Japan experiences around 80 suicides per day – the highest in the developed world – and has done so each year for almost two decades is the less surprising element.

In the aftermath of the incident, interviews with neighbors by local media revealed that the 71-year-old “victim,” Haruo Hayashizaki, had complained of financial difficulties, in particular the limitations of his pension. Just minutes before he doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze, Hayashizaki reportedly called his local city office in Suginami, Tokyo, and informed officials there that he was making his final journey aboard a bullet train with the intention of taking his own life. Financially, he was simply unable to keep himself afloat, he told them.

Monetary problems are often seen as the easy scapegoat for Japan’s startlingly high suicide rate, which, until last year, consistently exceeded the 30,000 mark each year since 1997. Signs erected outside Japan’s infamous suicide forest in Yamanashi to dissuade visitors from taking their lives there were erected not by the municipal government but by an NGO specialising in financial advice.

But the picture is rarely so clear cut. Back in 1999 I wrote a story in the Japan Times following the announcement by the Health and Welfare Ministry that suicide numbers during the previous fiscal year had topped almost 32,000 — a record figure that represented a 30 percent increase over 1997 and equating to more than three times the number of deaths from automobile accidents.

Experts interviewed, such as Yoshitomo Takahashi, who was then deputy head of the Tokyo Institute of Psychiatry’s Department of Psychopathology, were critical of this pigeon-holing, insisting that numerous other factors, cultural and medical among them, could and do influence such a drastic course of action. “Suicide is never that simple,” Takahashi said. “It is invariably multifactorial.”

According to national police reports, a major suicide motive is depression. More than half of suicide victims are out of work when they died, which experts say were as likely to suggest a depression trigger as a financial one. Among them, men in their 50s were most numerous, though men in their 30s and 40s has been the demographic showing the biggest percentage increase in the past few years.

This generation has a lot of difficulty finding permanent jobs, and instead take on temping work that is unstable and causes great anxiety,” said Yukio Saito, a former executive director of Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline), a volunteer telephone counselling service that fields around 70,000 calls annually from people contemplating suicide.Callers most frequently cite mental health and family problems as the reason for contemplating suicide.  Behind that there are other issues, such as financial problems or losing a job.”

A stigma attached to depression means that men – who are 14 times more likely to take their lives than women – are unlikely to seek help, said Shizuo Machizawa, a former professor at Rikkyo University who runs the Machizawa Mental Health Clinic in Tokyo.

There was also a “generation factor” to take into consideration, with post-war boom generation men who are tied to the lifetime employment mentality, likely to feel the pressure of work more acutely than the more care-free generations below them.

A look into Haruo Hayashizaki’s life through the eyes of the local media indicates little more than plain old financial dissatisfaction. As a young man he had moved from his hometown in Iwate Prefecture to Tokyo to fulfill his dream of becoming a singer. One neighbor interviewed by local TV said Hayashizaki was generally well-liked – he had even started up a local baseball team.

According to one report, when Hayashizaki was about 30 he had fallen for a younger woman who worked at a local bar he frequented and who had become pregnant by an abusive partner. Hyashizaki had offered to support the woman, but she and the baby had died during labor.

Some reports have painted a picture of an unemployed elderly man who was single and increasingly isolated, venting his frustrations by breaking windows. But others say he had continued to work until his late 60s and had never caused a stir at previous places of employment, which included a steel factory and kindergarten bus driver.

In fact, it had only been in the past month or so that he had started to express satisfaction with his pension, according to one neighbor. Having made contributions over 35 years, this reportedly was 240,000 yen every two months, but after his rent, medical costs and utilities were deducted, little remained, he had claimed.

According to three men I interviewed who have made unsuccessful attempts at taking their lives, financial concerns were often nothing more than a tinderbox, even an excuse, behind other occasionally less tangible problems.

One of them, Hiroyuki Deyama, who twice attempted suicide at the Aokigahara suicide forest, said he had felt a sense of hopelessness after having lost his job when it was discovered he had health problems.

It was a heavy blow not just financially but to my self esteem,” said the 48 year-old former steel factory worker. Several years earlier he had been diagnosed with a heart condition that company officials deemed to place him and other workers at risk.

And with that, he lost sight of the future. His deepening depression, and lack of finances, first led him to sleep inside his rusting car, until it was towed away. Unable to find employment, he took to scrounging and begging to eke out an existence. His friends deserted him. So he went to the forest in the middle of winter armed with booze, prescription pills and bags of ice. After consuming the former two, he removed his clothes and lay down beneath the trees with the bags of ice balanced over his heart.

When two elderly walkers found him the next day his body was blue – but despite his weakened heart and troubled mind, Deyama’s solid frame had refused to give in. “Nobody seemed to care, I felt like an outcast, a liability.”

Another man, who asked to remain anonymous, also said that health issues and a divorce had sent him spiralling into an ever deeper chasm of depression. “There comes a point where something as important as money becomes not just banal but completely irrelevant,” said the man, who was in his 20s. “I wanted to talk it over with someone but had no idea who would listen.” 

Cultural issues weigh heavy. Showzen Yamashita, a priest who conducts Buddhist rites in Aokigahara forest to pray for the repose of the thousands of people who have died there over the years, says the lack of support networks in Japan is a main cause of the ever-increasing suicide rate.

They have no one to talk to, no one to share the pain, the suffering,” he said. “So they think, ‘If I take my life I can escape this misery.’ ”

And they can do so without the reservations imposed in some countries courtesy of religious and/or cultural behavioral codes, according to Yoshinori Cho, director of the psychiatry department at Teikyo University, and author of the book “Hito wa naze Jisatsu Suru no ka” (“Why do People Commit Suicide?”). “Throughout Japanese history, suicide has never been prohibited on religious or moral grounds,” Cho said. “Apart from on two specific occasions in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), suicide has never been declared illegal.”

Lifeline’s Saito concurred, saying: “Suicide is quite permissible in Japanese society, something honorable that is even glorified.”

Details of the shinkansen suicide also seem to point to this factor. A fellow traveller is said to have attempted to placate Hayashizaki, offering him money as he roamed distractedly through the front car of the express train, a canister of gasoline in his backpack. “I don’t need your money,” he reportedly replied, before dousing himself in the liquid, and, lighter in hand, standing at the front of the carriage for all to witness his grand exit.

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