Business Suicides: Japan's Death Trap

They're becoming an epidemic. What can Tokyo do?

Sumiko Kitagawa has heard just about every tale of woe imaginable. Kitagawa mans the phone lines at a Tokyo counseling hotline called Inochi Denwa, or Life Phone. It's a busy place: Mirroring Japan's slide into economic stagnation, suicide-related calls have doubled since 1997. Sometimes, Kitagawa engages in chilling conversation with indebted salarymen weighing the value of their continued existence vs. a life-insurance payout that would secure the financial future of their families. Says Kitagawa: "I try to tell them the children want their father, not the money."

Unfortunately, the message often doesn't get through. Japan is suffering what amounts to a suicide epidemic. Hardly a week passes without news of an executive jumping in front of a train or hanging himself in a hotel room. Top executives are ending their lives, too. In March, Sadao Takizawa, president of Takizawa Ham Co., a financially ailing company implicated in a food-poisoning case, apparently tossed himself off a bridge north of Tokyo. Each year since 1998, 30,000-plus Japanese have killed themselves--up nearly 60% from the 1980s. And while the numbers are leveling off (chart), they remain stubbornly high. Indeed, Japan has the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita suicide rate among the Group of Seven nations.

The rising tide of misery has at last grabbed the attention of the Japanese government. For years, Tokyo adopted a hands-off policy. After all, this is a nation where suicide is widely considered an honorable exit, and where The Complete Suicide Manual was a best-seller in the 1990s. Now, embarrassed by the high toll, the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has set itself the task of eventually bringing the annual number of suicides back under 22,000, where it was in 1996, before Asia's financial crisis.

But the government will have to put more resources behind its good intentions. Last year, for the first time, Tokyo allocated funds to suicide-prevention programs. But the Koizumi administration set aside only $2.7 million, a paltry amount that critics say will do little to reduce the number of deaths. This fiscal year, the suicide-prevention budget rises to $4.5 million, but that is still peanuts compared with the tens of millions of dollars that charitable organizations in the West lavish on the problem each year.

It won't be easy to change attitudes. The corporate warrior ethos still pervades the Japanese workplace--and warriors don't show their pain. Ageism is a factor, too. It is very hard to relaunch a career after 45 or so. And finally there is a cultural reluctance in Japan--and in the rest of Asia, for that matter--to seek help for depression and other forms of mental illness. Japanese, says Kitagawa, the Life Phone counselor, "tend to have a prejudice against mental-health problems, especially men."

As in most countries, it is men who are the most likely to kill themselves. Most suicides involve midlevel executives or Japan's new jobless. They are people aged 40 to 60 who are living with crushing debt pressure. Some bought their homes at the peak of the bubble during the late 1980s and now find themselves out of work and unable to pay their mortgages. Others have multiple outstanding loans with Japanese consumer-finance companies whose easy-credit policies include 20%-plus interest rates.

While Americans simply declare bankruptcy during hard times, such a solution isn't so easy in Japan. Once again, cultural pressure is to blame. Japanese have been allowed to seek court protection for decades, and starting in 1999 the rules were relaxed to make the legal process faster and cheaper. Hence, more Japanese are summoning up the resolve to declare bankruptcy. Some 160,000 people a year are doing so, up from 70,000 in 1987, according to Seiichi Yoshikawa, an attorney with Koga & Partners in Tokyo. But the Japanese Federation of Bar Assns. figures as many as 1.5 million Japanese are effectively bankrupt but unwilling to file. Says Yoshikawa: "[Personal bankruptcy] is regarded as close to a crime in Japan."

Still, the authorities at least recognize that they have a role to play in changing attitudes toward suicide. In late April, the government co-sponsored a prominently displayed article on middle-age suicide in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper. The two-page spread told readers to watch their loved ones for such key warning signs as excessive job stress, drinking, and depression. In January, the government published its first formal guidelines to help corporate counselors identify suicidal tendencies. Tokyo also has sponsored seminars among academics on suicide and the workplace.

Perhaps the fastest way to stem the suicide wave is to get the economy growing again. There is a strong correlation between economic conditions and feelings of worthlessness. Suicides spiked in 1998, when the economy went into a tailspin after several big banks and brokerages failed. A return to growth might give Japan's desperate workers hope for the future--and a reason to live.

By Brian Bremner in Tokyo

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