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Suicide state

Japan's high suicide rate, a fallout of the economic slump, is cause for concern. The government has now taken steps to increase awareness and educate counsellors to deal with the problem.

A businessman walks beneath a stock quotation board flashing a drop in the value of stocks in front of a securities brokerage in Tokyo.

JAPAN now celebrates the blossoming of cherry trees. Spring is here. Men and women party under the refreshingly colourful branches. The moon looks tantalising on clear skies. There is mirth and elation all around. Yet, this seems such a façade in a society now struggling to come to terms with an economy that is no longer bubbly. The country's boom time is long over, but traces of prosperity still linger, though impeded by a sense of insecurity and fear.

A disturbing fallout of this economic slump is heightened stress. A nation that turned discipline into a fine art is now beginning to seek other answers. During my stay in Japan, I was bowled over by the race's discipline. A man would walk in at the dot of the appointed hour for a meeting. A subway train would enter a station a minute before the scheduled time, and its gates would open at virtually the second it was meant to. Nobody faltered or slipped. Those who did, paid the price. Masaki Hattori piloted the train from Kyoto to Nishi Akashi, 100 km away, every day. But one fine morning, he was delayed by a full 60 seconds, the minute that cost him his life. His management punished him by giving him an office job, a euphemism for "re-education". The evening after, a colleague found that Hattori had hung himself, unable to bear the shame of being an imperfectionist. He was just 44.

There are other reasons why a person kills himself. Japan is so used to company loyalty and lifetime employment that the present economic downturn — which has added a new leaf to corporate policy, "hire and fire" — makes it very difficult to adhere to these traditional features.

Kazuhiro Kuroda redoubled his efforts and tried even harder to please his bosses. But his firm could not retain him in the prevailing economic climate. Kuroda ended his life. He was 45.

The country's monetary crisis is not just hitting balance sheets and bank statements. It is pushing them to suicide. Last year, 425,000 men and women were treated for stress or related ailments. Doctors do not know how many relapsed into mental listlessness or took the extreme step. Japan has the highest rate of suicide in the industrialised world. The gloomy state of the economy has pushed the incidence to a post-war high. In the year 2000, over 80 people on an average took their own lives every day. This is more than three times the number of traffic deaths.

Haruhiko Sakurai, director of the Occupational Health Research and Development Centre at the Japan Industrial Safety and Health association, says the scenario is grim. "We have not experienced such an extraordinary situation before", he adds. The Government has woken up to what was considered a taboo subject, a subject that was invariably brushed under the spotless Tatami mats. Last year, it allotted 349.39 million yen for measures to prevent suicides. This year, the administration plans to spend 566.26 million yen. The money will be used to create an awareness of the problem, and to educate counsellors to identify those who may be on the verge of suicide.

Some experts while welcoming this initiative, the first ever in the nation's history, feel that this can merely be a palliative. A real decline in suicidal tendency will take place only when Japan's economic health picks up. But with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi still fighting shy of crucial banking reforms, one of the first steps towards boosting the economy, the dark tunnel appears endless.

And, the anxiety of facing an uncertain future is taking an unbelievable toll. Rie Tanaguchi is just 25, works part time and suffers from a nagging backache. It took the doctor to diagnose her problem as one caused by worry. Having grown in the lap of considerable luxury, Rie is afraid of a future without little perks. She cannot find a full-time job. Her part-time job does not come with guarantees. She is clearly unhappy in a social order where money matters, where middle-aged men become recluses and run away from their families when they lose their salaries.

Rie is not alone. There are hundreds of youngsters like her who are beginning to show the first unmistakable signs of depression, a terrifying condition which can force one towards suicide.


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