Japan, one of the few handful countries that tackled the global COVID outbreak without imposing strict lockdowns, but amidst the glittering lights and bustling traffic, the land of the rising sun has been battling a pandemic of its own. With the spiking suicide cases, for some life amidst the pandemic is getting unbearable. The country has seen a rise in the suicide rate after many natural disasters, recessions, and other social upheavals, but unlike earlier where victims were usually middle-aged men, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a sharp increase in suicide cases of youth, especially women.

But what is driving this escalation in Japan’s suicide rates? How has the pandemic worsened the country’s suicide toll and what is the way out?

Japan’s Escalating Suicide Rates

The coronavirus pandemic has been tough for multiple reasons, but the women of Japan were hit the worst. The country lost almost one million jobs in just a matter of few weeks, of which the majority of the fired employed were women. For the first time in eleven years, the suicide rates went so high. According to the National Police Agency, in 2020 alone, 12,919 people were reported to have taken their lives.

Amidst the COVID pandemic, urban isolation, job losses, mental stress, and the household burden is building compounded pressure on women. Not very long ago, Japan has ranked the country with the largest number of suicides annually, and for the country that has worked decades for keeping the numbers down, the exponentially increased suicides are worrying the government to take instant actions.

Number of suicides in Japan. 2008 - 2020.  .

In the wake of increasing suicides, the Japanese government has created three mental task forces along with providing $55million for mental help care, including $12million specifically for the women population. In early February, the government appointed a ‘Minister of Loneliness’ where the portfolio was allotted to Tetsushi Sakamoto. While accepting the new role, the minister said, “I hope to carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people.”

Why Do Suicide Rates Keeps Hiking In Japan?

Experts blame the pandemic to highlight many of the social upheavals already present in Japan which pushes thousands of its residents to the verge of suicide every year; the most blamed of which is the country’s rapidly aging population. With over 20% of the population above the age of 65 years old, the workload on the younger and middle-aged generations is enormous. Japan already has one of the longest working hours in the world leaving little to no opportunity for the working class to spend time to relax, and enjoy a social life.

Karoshi‘ a Japanese term meaning sudden occupational mortality defines the extreme work culture where employees are demanded to work overtime up to 80 hours every month and in some cases, the extra hours aren’t even paid. Long hours of work without time left for any recreation have created a tremendously unhappy population, many of which unable to cope with the pressure, take extreme steps. The instances of people jumping off the buildings are so common, that some street corners have signs of ‘Mind the Sky‘ warning the pedestrians of falling persons.

The fine line between loneliness and solitude has been blurred by the word ‘kodoku’, representing both. The self-isolation culture has spiraled to an extent, that today about one million Japanese live in absolute self-imposed isolation for years, these modern hermits of isolation are named “‘hikikomori” by Tamaki Saito, a renowned psychiatrist Professor.

Joblessness triggered by the global pandemic made many lose their jobs thus pushing them further into the trap. With the new glorifying culture of loneliness, the country has become extremely difficult for needy people to seek professional mental help.

In the past couple of years, many popular Japanese TV and movie stars took their lives, the latest suicide of actress Yoko Takeuchi in September 2020, hiked the number of women killing themselves by 90% more compared to the previous year. Showing his concerns over the escalating suicide rate, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in a meeting with Tetsushi Sakamoto “Women are suffering from isolation more (than men are) and the number of suicides is on a rising trend. I hope you will identify problems and promote policy measures comprehensively,”

Japanese actress Yuko Takeuchi
Yuko Takeuchi, a Japanese actress who committed suicide at the age of 40

The Worsened Crisis

Japan has succeeded in successfully containing the pandemic, but the fact that ever since the virus arrived on its ground, more women have died of suicide than of coronavirus is surely tough to swallow. The suicide crisis of Japan is far older than the COVID outbreak and after the pandemic, the recoiling to the previous curved graph of suicide rates will take a lot more effort. Experts believe that spreading mental health awareness and looking into the work pressure is the way out of Japan’s suicide crisis.