Suicide in Japan

A few months ago when I was posting random tidbits of stuff from the Japanese news media to this blog, I came across an article about a group suicide that happened in a hotel less than an hour from where I live. Three people–two men and a woman–packed into a bathroom, sealed the door with duct tape and mixed together some household chemicals to create hydrogen sulfide gas, which in high enough concentrations kills in less than 15 seconds. It was the first time I had heard of that method being used, and I thought it was interesting but too depressing to post. Also, I didn’t want to give anyone any ideas. It’s not too difficult to figure out that it’s simply a matter of finding something made with hydrochloric acid and something else containing sulfur, and mixing the two together in a bowl.

Weeks went by and I slacked off from reading news articles in Japanese, because frankly, it’s a time consuming pain in the ass, and keeping up with election news from the US in English requires far less effort in comparison. But eventually I did go back to it. (It’s what I do when I can’t sleep at night.) That’s when I discovered that suicide by hydrogen sulfide had become a fad. Between the beginning of this year and the end of May, there have been 517 deaths nationwide, compared to only 29 in all of last year. In at least one incident, the elderly parent of a suicide victim was found dead just outside the bathroom where the 39 year old man took his own life. In far more cases, entire neighborhoods have had to be evacuated until the air was deemed safe to breathe.

People who are suicidally depressed often feel like they just want to disappear; to go to sleep and never wake up. On various online bulletin boards (such as 2chan), blogs and websites, death by hydrogen sulfide has been toted as a way to take one’s own life quickly, easily, and painlessly. In fact, when you search Google for the term “hydrogen sulfide” in Japanese, the second highest ranking result after the Wikipedia article is a web page giving a step-by-step instructions on what chemicals to use, how to buy them, how much to mix together given the size of the room, and even a PDF sign to print out and tape to a door warning others to stay away and call authorities. Two links at the very bottom of the page take you to the sites for two suicide prevention organizations. I don’t know what the author’s point is, given the contents of the rest of the page.

But here’s what really blows me away: Even though for the past 10 years in Japan over 30,000 people have committed suicide annually, the government is doing very little to combat the problem. That statistic is four times the number of people who die in traffic accidents every year. On year’s total is roughly equal to the number of soldiers killed and wounded since the beginning of the Gulf War.

Nearly 20% of suicides are attributed to depression, the rest mostly to physical ailments or unsurmountable debts. It’s the ones caused by depression that are the most disturbing to me. If 6,060 people had died in 2007 from any other cause–homicide, SARS, AIDS, paper cuts–the news media would be in hysterics over the epidemic and the government would throw billions of yen at the problem. As it stands, the only concrete action I’ve been able to dig up on the part of the government is their declaration to cut the suicide rate by 20% by 2016. Maybe I just haven’t hit Google paydirt yet on what’s actually being done; the relevant section of the National Institute of Public Health’s website has a pretty picture of some flowers to show their concern, but the page hasn’t been updated since 2003.

I don’t know what my point is, other than 30,000 people out of a total population of 127 million is a hell of a lot of people, and the thought blows my mind. That, and I’d like to see psychotherapy cognitive behavioral therapy covered by national health insurance. Taking antidepressants without therapy is like taking anti-cholesterol medication but still eating at McDonald’s three times a day.

Rich Pav

Richard has been living in Japan since 1990 with his wife and two teenage sons, Tony and Andy.

8 thoughts to “Suicide in Japan”

  1. Making help more widely available and changing people’s view on it as a “noble” act would be a good plan for the future.

  2. I would caution against using a loaded term like “psychotherapy” as it tends to be viewed by most as Freudian. Cognitive-behavioral therapy in conjunction with medication is generally more effective. I also agree with akira, that the society at large needs to change its view of depression so that education and appropriate resources are seen as not only effective, but desirable.

  3. What is wrong with sounding “scholarly?” It may have been thinking like that, that bought us the last eight years of anti-intellectual thinking (now there is an oxymoron!) in U.S. politics. 😉

  4. But Rich, you’re not listening to your average Tokyo therapist. Depression is selfish. People need to gaman, suck it up, and stop being selfish by burdening others with their complaints.

    Doesn’t help that medication seems to lean towards sedatives, either.

    If 6,060 died of papercuts, the gov’t would require paper to be regulated, ask for ID at P.O.P., and keep a close eye on Chinese paper merchants. There’s nothing to ban or regulate in depression. Dealing with it is mendokusai.

    Garretts last blog post: Child Cannibal “Tsutomu” Hanged; Hatoyama Executes Three Inmates @ http://www.transpacificradio.com

  5. But Rich, you’re not listening to your average Tokyo therapist. Depression is selfish. People need to gaman, suck it up, and stop being selfish by burdening others with their complaints.

    That’s what depressed people tell themselves. I’m sure therapy is better than that.

  6. Hi, I’m new here, but I thought I’d contribute despite my relative ignorance regarding Japanese culture and govt. policies:

    Is the government doing something to somehow *encourage* suicide? If not, I believe it’s correct for the government to not attempt to resolve a problem like this. Sure, they could make some token effort, but a problem like this requires direct contact rather than the aloof attempts from the local government.

    The article states that depression and debt rank high as the rationale among those who kill (or seek to kill) themselves. Thankfully, clinical depression has been recognized as a widespread problem and good research has been (and continues to be) done toward resolving it. Recent research suggests that regular exercise works as well or better than medication for alleviating the symptoms of clinical depression.

    Link: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression-and-exercise/MH00043

    Now, the article didn’t make clear if the matter of “debt” was “depression as a result of being in debt” or just “being in debt”; is this a manifestation of “death before dishonor”? Again, I’m fairly ignorant of Japanese culture, but I am curious to learn if this is the case. Here in the U.S., having a good name is important and there are benefits, but, even if your name becomes mud for some reason, people remain willing to accept you if you clean-up and get back on track. Is this not the case in Japan?

  7. Jason, I know nothing about personal bankruptcy protection laws in Japan, but I think it’s safe to say they probably don’t offer as much protection as those in the US. The only thing I do know is that a number of years ago a law was passed that made company executives personally liable to stockholders for the failure of a company, meaning stockholders could go after the personal finances of executives. In the US there’s protection against that.

    On the mental health side of things, I’ve been doing a little reading of the infamous suicide message boards in Japanese and it sounds like there’s a long waiting line for people who want to go into therapy.

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