Suicide is an endemic and entrenched problem in Japanese society. At its peak, in 2003, the number of annual suicides stood at 34,427. Although suicide rates in the country have taken on a noticeable downward trend in the past decade, falling from 19 per 100,000 in 2010 to 14.3 per 100,000 in 2016, suicide is still a major social issue in Japan. So, what is it that makes suicide so prevalent? And what is being done to prevent it?

There is a complex cultural structure that surrounds Japanese suicide – one that can shed light upon the significance of suicide in modern day Japan. This culture has its roots in the 12th century, during the Kamakura Shogunate. In this period, extensive codes of honour developed in Japan: the so-called ‘way of the warrior’ defined the way in which Japanese samurai led their lives. In many ways, it was comparable to the system of chivalry that existed amongst knights in medieval Europe.

Samurai life revolved around the idea of the preservation of honour – the loss of face brought great shame onto a Samurai, as well as to his family. Ritual suicide evolved as a method of restoring both personal honour and that of the family. This ritual suicide, or Seppuku, often consisted of various ceremonial procedures including the eating of a last meal and the composition of a death poem, before the Samurai attempted self-disembowelment whilst being simultaneously decapitated by an assistant.

Harvey Dorset, Culture Columnist, ponders the Bushido mind to discover parallels with modern suicide and the ancient culture of Japan

Seppuku has a history stretching almost 800 years – the earliest recorded case being that of Minamoto no Yorimasa during the Battle of Uji in 1180. Although ritual suicide was banned as a judicial punishment in Japan from 1873, it continued to survive as a method of voluntary suicide; the last recorded instance of Seppuku was in 1970.

In more recent history, Japanese suicide has been typified by the deaths of kamikaze pilots during the Second World War. These pilots, willingly or not, flew their aircraft into American ships in order to cause maximum damage. It was proposed by the Japanese government that the sacrifice of kamikaze pilots upheld one of the key samurai values: honour until death.


By Harvey Dorset: Culture Columnist

The historical importance of suicide and honour in Japanese culture has seen the nation’s high suicide rates go unnoticed until relatively recently. In Japanese literature and media, and thus social opinion, suicide became normalised as an act of personal freedom and as a way of restoring lost honour. Writing in 2012, in the Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience Journal, Steven Targum and Junko Kitanaka argue that it was only the extremely high suicide rates of the past few decades that “contributed to a new conceptualization of suicide as a genuine mental illness”. Indeed, it has only been recently that the links between suicide and depression have become readily accepted.

Government Intervention

So, what is the Japanese government doing to tackle what is evidently a prevailing social issue? Significant change began in 2005 with the establishment of Japan’s first forum on suicide: a collaboration between an NGO, Lifelink, and a member of the Japanese Parliament. Progress continued in 2006 with the passing of legislation. This legislation, The Basic Act for Suicide Prevention, was further amended in 2016 – it now requires municipalities to establish plans on how the problem of suicide will be addressed in each region. The action taken towards suicide prevention has yielded success; the number of annual suicides has been decreasing since 2009 and in 2012 the annual suicide figure fell below 30,000 for the first time since 1998. 2013 saw a further decline in suicides and this trend has continued, with suicide rates in 2019 reaching their lowest since 1978, when records began, at only 20,169.

Despite the Japanese Government’s suicide prevention tactics making huge strides in the drive to reduce suicide, Yasuyuki Shimizu, the founder of Lifelink, states that “The fact that 20,000 people still die by suicide a year is a very unusual situation and is nothing to be optimistic about”. Evidently, the number of suicides is still a pertinent subject in Japan and the attempts to improve the situation will need to continue.

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