Japan has long been plagued by suicide. It has one of the world's highest suicide rates and it's one of the leading causes of death among men. But last year the number of suicides fell below 30,000 for the first time in 15 years, according to the government.
Though suicide is still a big problem in Japan, often linked with how the economy is doing, the decline provides the country a rare glimmer on the issue, following economic downturn a year after the devastating Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power meltdown, which had some observers bracing for a higher than average number of suicides.
Why the dip? Some say the community-based efforts of experts, activists, and citizens groups urging the government to address the social problem and draw up countermeasures is starting to work.
Such efforts have been bolstered by $113-million government subsidies, says Hisanaga Sasaki, an associate professor of health sciences at Akita University who researches suicide prevention and mental health. The people forced the government to confront the issue. The subsidies compelled government officials to take action, rework laws, and set up hotlines, and that has helped local communities, Mr. Sasaki says.
"The efforts made through cooperation with volunteers, civic groups, and local government officials have been effective in tackling the issue," Sasaki says.
On Jan. 17, Japan's National Police Agency announced that the number of suicides declined to 27,766 in 2012, the first fall below 30,000 in 15 years.
The large number of suicides in Japan is attributed mainly to the country's protracted economic downturns. Many see bankruptcy as a personal failure, rather than a symptom of a temporary economic problem. In many cases, bankruptcy causes business owners to kill themselves just as samurai warriors used to practice hara-kiri, a ritual form of suicide, to show they accept responsibility for their deeds.
"As they keep blaming themselves for business failure, saying, 'I've done wrong' or 'I've caused trouble to society,' that totally impairs their judgment," says Hisao Sato who started a suicide prevention program in 2002 in Akita city, some 720 miles north of Tokyo. The region is notorious for being home to the highest suicide rates.