Naruhito calls for more efforts to prevent suicides

TOKYO: Japan’s struggle with suicide has been well-documented even as deaths due to suicide had been declining for 11 straight years until Covid-19 hit.

From the country’s notorious “suicide forest” of Aokigahara – one of the world’s most-used suicide sites – to Takahiro Shiraishi, rapist and serial killer who used Twitter to lure suicidal women to his home, the spectre of suicide looms large over Japan and its perception abroad.Suicide has been consistently ranked among the top 10 causes of death in Japan for the past decade.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic last year, suicide fatalities in Japan increased by 3.7% to 20,919, exhibiting a worrisome spike among women and youth.

Emperor Naruhito, who turned 61 on Tuesday, said that he felt pained by the increase in suicides and urged for all-out preventive efforts and greater support for vulnerable groups.

Comparatively, Japan registered 3,492 deaths due to Covid-19 last year. As of Monday, the country’s total coronavirus death toll stood at 7,549.

The number of suicide deaths last year is well under the all-time high of 34,427 recorded in 2003.

But last year also marks the first year-on-year rise since the 2009 financial crisis.

This prompted Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to create a new Cabinet post to address mental health issues.

Tetsushi Sakamoto, 70, who is concurrently regional revitalisation minister and minister-in-charge of reversing Japan’s falling birthrate, takes on the position of “Minister of Loneliness”.

He heads a new office on suicide countermeasures, with about 30 officials, that began work last Friday.Japan follows in the footsteps of Britain which, in 2018, appointed a minister in charge of loneliness. London defines loneliness as “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship”.

Japan has grappled with isolation issues and this has been compounded by Covid-19.

Waseda University sociologist Prof Michiko Ueda, who studies suicide, said that women and youth are at higher risk of feeling psychologically cornered.

She noted that women are more likely to be contract workers whose jobs are at greater risk of being terminated, and are more likely to work in service industries that are hard-hit by the pandemic.

Youth, meanwhile, may feel isolated from being unable to attend school in person, she said, citing a study by the National Centre for Child Health and Development that showed 72% of students reporting stress and 28% depression from school closures.

Japan was also rocked by a series of high-profile celebrity suicides last year, including reality television star Hana Kimura, actor Haruma Miura, and Yuko Takeuchi.

Prof Ueda expressed concern that these deaths could have inspired copycat suicides.

Female suicides soared 90% in October from the same month last year after the abrupt death of Takeuchi, an award-winning popular actress, on Sept 27.

While there is a slight decline from last year, Prof Ueda said the situation remains severe and called for customised proactive approaches that target vulnerable groups, beyond conventional strategies such as helplines. — The Straits Times/ANN

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