Japan is facing an unprecedented number of child suicides.
In 2022, 514 elementary and middle school students took their lives, according to statistics from Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare released this month.
Within this group there were 17 children aged 12 or less.
It is the first time that, since statistics began to be compiled in 1980, the number of minors exceeds 500 cases.
Although the absolute total increased by 4.2% per year in 2022 to 21,881 cases, Japan is far from its all-time high of 34,427 suicides recorded in 2003.
The decrease in suicides in Japan in the past two decades is equivalent to 40% and is attributed to the efforts of non-governmental organizations such as Lifelink (vital link, in English), founded in 2004. "Despite the general decrease, the suicide of minors continues on the rise and that means support measures are not enough,” says Yasuyuki Shimizu, who founded Lifelink after completing research on children orphaned by the suicide of a parent for a television show he directed.
Shimizu left investigative journalism to pursue a pressing social issue.
In his opinion, technology and social networks have exacerbated the problem, since messages, in cases of bullying, persecute children 24 hours a day.
However, experts remember that suicide is always multi-causal, without a single trigger.
In Japan, living against a backdrop of declining birth rates and an aging population, academic pressure and fear of bullying in schools are some of the factors associated with child suicide, especially at the end of vacation .
Family conflicts also contribute to inspiring desires to "want to disappear from this world", continues the expert.
Another factor is sexist violence.
“Many of the children who consult us talk about the fact that their mother wanted to take her own life after being beaten by her father.
That can create a cycle.”
Lifelink receives an average of 4,000 phone calls and 3,000 text messages, many of which are from minors.
Japanese minors become familiar with suicide through recurring information on the subject, says Shimizu, who dismisses the widespread perception in the West that Japanese culture encourages taking one's life by celebrating acts such as
In fact, according to Shimizu, the perception of suicide as a problem that society needs to address openly has normalized it, has favored the discussion of laws to eradicate it, but also makes many children see it as an option to get out of their problems.
Although in Japan the national television news favors euphemisms such as "ending one's own life", suicide is a statistic announced every year in the media, on the websites of ministries, regional governments, the police and institutions that They work for mental health.
However, on the street, "suicide is still a taboo word in conversations, despite the fact that it does not receive the category of sin assigned to it by religions such as Christianity or Islam," explains Shimizu.
“Kids associate it with pity or think that asking for help (when having suicidal thoughts) is a nuisance to others,” she adds.
That taboo is also in school, despite the fact that suicide is more talked about in Japanese society.
“When children can speak their minds at school and at home,
The Japanese media often abide by the recommendations of the World Health Organization to omit methods in reporting on suicides.
Even so, in the case of deaths of celebrities, the form of suicide is usually leaked on social networks and its repercussions are usually immediate.
Shimizu charts the suicide spikes that have occurred after the suicide of a famous person became known.
In July and September 2020, for example, the respective suicides of a popular 30-year-old actor and a 40-year-old actress were emulated by people of similar ages, doubling the number of deaths by their own hands in the days after the announcement of the two cases.
Social problem and public policies
Many Japanese associate suicide with shame and relegate it to an individual problem for weak people.
In 2006, with the help of parliamentarians who heard testimonies from children who had lost their parents to suicide, Shimizu designed and successfully passed the Basic Law on Suicide Countermeasures, which aims to convey the message that helping people who think about taking their own life is a job that corresponds to society as a whole.
After setting numerical objectives to reduce the suicide rate to levels similar to those of other industrialized countries, the Basic Law produced almost two decades of decrease in deaths by own hand and fostered a collaborative dynamic that avoids the usual obstacles between organizations and institutions and Prioritize solutions.
“But the most important thing is to teach children to send an SOS message and make them aware that it is okay to do so,” says the Lifelink founder.
Right at the start of the pandemic, Shimizu was managing the creation of a body called the Japan Suicide Promotion Center (JSCP), which addressed the increase in suicides during the lockdown and helped alleviate the closure of support centers due to the pandemic.
In January 2021, JSCP was designated by the World Health Organization as a “collaborating center providing research and training for suicide prevention”.
Among its objectives are international academic exchanges, exporting its experiences to other countries and creating a global network for measures against suicide.
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits
I'm already a subscriber