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Mind the sky: Japan's suicide culture

After more than 13,000 suicides this year, where are the emergency measures to tackle this long-lived malady?

Mind the sky: Japan's suicide culture

Mind the sky. This is the sign that should appear on every street corner in Japan, especially those crossing high-rise buildings, along with the more conventional messages on traffic signs.

Why should this be? Do we have to worry about pigeon droppings? No, you are very unlikely in Japan to be hit by a bird’s poop. Do we have to be warned of falling debris from constructions sites? No, the Japanese have great safety standards and they are duly enforced.

There is something else we have to seriously take into consideration when walking along a Japanese street: the possibility of being hit by a person falling to their death.

Two weeks ago, I found myself in the Osaka night district of Umeda. There around 6pm, while walking with a friend to a restaurant, my attention was drawn to an unusual gathering of people, more like a cluster, and a few ambulances. I wondered what was going on. I thought that some old person had fainted or someone had had a heart attack, something quite usual to see in Japan, especially during the hot summer months.

But it was late October. I quickly checked the internet to see if there was any news of this incident and soon found someone posting pictures of the same place that was right in front of me. A youth of 17 years of age decided to take his own life by jumping from a building in what’s probably one of the most crowded areas in Osaka. That's not all. On his fall he crushed a 19-year-old woman who was passing by.

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The woman ended up in a hospital where she perished a few hours later, as the boy did. There was no official explanation given for his extreme action. And I don't mean an explanation that would appear in the media. Anyone who has lived in Japan for a long time is well aware that neither parents nor friends of suicides have any clue.

There are people taking their lives every single day in Japan. Some of them do it by throwing themselves off buildings, a chilling stunt. There are cases, like the one I described, where a passerby will be killed as well. When being hit by a person falling to their death becomes more likely than being hit by lightning, then we know that something in that society is not right. Something has to be fixed and quickly too. Authorities should be on alert, 24 hours a day, 365 days, until this national emergency is at least partially dealt with. Nothing of this sort is happening at the moment.

How can a decent society, as the Japanese one portrays itself, put countless energy into raising energetic young men and women only to see them taking their lives in the most horrific manner? Sometimes, we have to reason, these victims of society (we all agree that such young individuals cannot be entirely blamed for taking every little step that leads them to the ultimate decision) must be aware of the consequences of their act to potential passersby. They may be desperate, not thoughtless. This form of involuntary kamikaze is something that a rich and progressive society doesn't want to see or hear. It is too much of a shame.

By sticking to this conformist attitude, very little has been done so far.

Death by overwork

We all heartily agree that we should risk running the economy dry to deal with the Covid-19 virus as saving lives is always the most valuable goal. So far 1,800 people have died in Japan since the beginning of the epidemic. That’s an awfully scary number that we all want to see reduced. And the authorities are taking tremendous steps to cope with it, creating new government bodies and taking extreme financial measures to avoid even one more death.

By comparison, more than 13,000 people have committed suicide in Japan this year. That’s almost eight times the number of deaths caused by the greatest pandemic the country has ever witnessed. Suicide is by far the leading cause of death for young people.

And we are yet to call it a national crisis? Where are the emergency measures taken to avoid this long-lived malady?

And this is only a part of the suicide problem. We all know of the death by overwork called karoshi, which is just a sophisticated term created to avoid calling those deaths what they are — suicides.

A new survey by the Japanese government — a survey targeted at some 10,000 companies and 20,000 workers — showed that one fifth of the country's employees face the risk of dying from overwork (again, suicides).

Among the great paradoxes of the modern era, there is not only that of a world divided between those who suffer from hunger and those who have more than they could consume. There is also that of countries where the rate of unemployment is incredibly high (see Greece and Spain) and those where dying by too much work doesn’t even make news anymore. It's that common.

Nearly 23 percent of Japanese businesses reported that some of their employees work more than 80 overtime hours per month. These 80 hours — roughly four hours a day to add to normal office hours — are officially known as the threshold beyond which the risk of suicide escalates dramatically.

The worst of the workaholic companies are 12 percent of the total, those whose employees reach the peak of 100 hours of overtime per month. Nearly 30 percent of these overworked employees are employed in the IT and communications industries as well as postal and transportation services.

Now the Japanese government's goal is to lower the percentage of employees who work more than 60 hours a week to reach a "healthy" threshold of 5 percent of total workers.

These are all welcome policies. Still we are waiting for a “great plan” to avoid the most excruciating of losses. Those who are not even officially yet in the society (shakaijin-worker) because they are way too young. Those whose suicides cannot be explained by overwork. And the reason is because we aren’t looking hard enough.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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