Japan's middle-aged suicide crisis

Is a "used" generation eliminating itself?

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared as
"For many Japanese life comes to an end at 40" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 126(50), 13 December 1984, pages 51-53

The FEER story was reprinted less two graphs in
Mainichi Daily News, 17 December 1984, page 5

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the FEER version.

Bluegreen paragraphs were cut from the MDN reprint,
and the bluegreen subheads were added to the reprint.

In spring this year [1984] Japanese headlines proclaimed "record high suicides in 1983". The ensuing articles were classic examples of how numbers can feed preconceptions about suicide in a country where the act is neither as common nor as glorified as people have been led to believe.

According to statistics compiled by the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MHW), 24,970 people committed suicide in Japan during 1983, which topped the previous 1958 record of 23,641. The National Police Agency (NPA), which keeps its own suicide tallies, reported a slightly higher figure of 25,202.

But Japan's population in 1958 was only 92.0 million compared with 118.8 million in 1983. So there were 25.7 suicides per 100,000 people in 1958 but only 21.0 in 1983. This is hardly a new record, though it is 20% higher than the 17.5 rate for 1982 when there were 20,668 suicides among a population of 118.0 million. Yet most newspaper reports concluded from body counts alone that 1983 was the "highest" or the "worst" year for suicide in Japanese history.

The deception becomes even worse when the "crude" suicide rates cited above are adjusted for changes in the age and sex structure of the population. Using the 1935 census population as a standard, the 1958 and 1982 rates become 23.5 and 12.6 per 100,000 people (9 percent and 28 percent lower than the respective crude rates), while the 1983 adjusted rate is estimated at about 15.0 (29 percent lower than the crude rate).

The greater disparity between the crude and adjusted rates for recent years like 1982 and 1983, compared to 1958, reflects the radical aging of Japan's population during the past quarter-century. Because suicide rates increase with age, an aging population will produce more cases of suicide, and thus higher crude suicide rates, even when the total population and the suicide rates for each age group of the population remain constant.

But reporting official statistics intelligently is a challenge that journalists do not always meet. Hence reports like this, which used MHW statistics:

4,088 men in their 40s suicided in 1983 (up 35% from 3,028 in 1982), while 3,558 men in their 50s killed themselves (up 47% from 2,421). This means that 7,646 middle-aged men committed suicide in 1983, or 2,197 (40%) more than the previous year, and about three times the 1973 figure.

The picture is greatly exaggerated because population changes were ignored. While the number of suicides in the 40-59 age group tripled since 1973, the 1983 population for the age group grew by nearly fifty percent. And so the 1983 rate for the 40-59 age group was only about double (not "three times") the 1973 rate.

Newspapers also abuse numbers when editorializing about alleged social problems. A front-page column of the morning edition of one of Japan's "big three" national dailies recently observed, based on NPA statistics, that "4,891 people 65 or older killed themselves in 1978, while in 1983 the number of such suicides was 5,572; as ever, there are many suicides among the elderly." The editorial went on to discuss the "conspicuous trend toward rushing to death" and attributed "the worst figures in the postwar period" to society's failure to save distressed people who really want to live. What the article should have pointed out is that the 65-and-over population had grown from 9.9 to 11.7 million during the six-year period mentioned, and that the 1983 suicide rate for the elderly (47.7 per 100,000) was therefore lower than the 1978 rate (49.5). The 1983 rate, however, was higher than the 1982 rate (42.4) based on MHW figures.

"Suicide in Japan is widely misunderstood," warned Yasuhiko Yuzawa, a professor at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo who specializes in family problems. "Many people are under the impression that suicide among the elderly has been increasing during the postwar period because the traditional family system and respect for the aged have been lost. But the prewar rates are much higher than the postwar rates."

Yuzawa was born in 1930 and thus qualifies as a member of the "one-digit Showa" generation that was born during the first decade of emperor Hirohito's reign, which began in 1926 and is called Showa (the Japanese government officially uses Showa 59 rather than 1984). And Yuzawa feels that the fuss about more people in Japan "rushing to death" is a project of sensational journalism. "I graduated from a high school under the new postwar system," he points out. "Three of my class mates died but their deaths weren't reported in the papers."

Influential 1981 Study

Such views fly in the face of an influential 1981 study which criticized junior high school textbooks for positively describing the postwar trend toward the nuclear (two-generation) family, away from the traditional extended family. The study concluded that the increasing number of elderly who are forced to live alone is to blame for the fact that the suicide rates for Japan's elderly are among the highest in the world. But editorials on the study also failed to note that suicide rates among the aged in Japan, though still high in comparison with many other countries, have declined during the period that nuclear families have increased.

The age-group trends in Japanese suicide rates over the past three quarter-centuries are clear. Suicide rates for all age groups during the postwar period 1947-1972 have averaged the same or less than for the 1918-1943 period. And the averages over the recent decade 1973-1982 tend to be even lower -- except for middle-aged men.

Early-adolescent (10-14) rates increased in the 1970s, but then fell without nearing prewar records. Late-adolescent (15-19) and early-young-adult (20-24) rates sharply decreased over the years of increased competition on exams for entering colleges and companies. But the postwar rates for both adolescents and young adults (20-29) have dropped much more for females than for males.

Between 1918 and the mid-1970s, the suicide rates for the middle-aged (30-59) of both sexes remained relatively low and fairly constant, while the rates for youth and the elderly -- but especially adolescents and young adults -- moved up and down, sometimes wildly. Thus Japan's suicide curves, in which suicide rates are plotted against age, have traditionally shown a deep middle-aged valley between the younger and older mountains on either side.

However, since 1945, suicide has decreased among the younger and older age groups of both sexes, but particularly among younger women. The rates for the younger groups soared to world highs in the 1950s, but just as quickly subsided to more moderate levels in the 1960s. Gone are the precipitous peaks in the suicide rate curves for young adults in their 20s, and the steep slopes for adolescents in their late teens.

About ten years ago, the rates for middle-aged men began to increase, first for men in their late 30s, then for those in their early and late 40s, and now for those in their early and late 50s. Women continue to face relatively lower suicide risks in the middle years of their life cycle, although recent rates have been slightly higher than the average for the postwar years.

In Japan as in many other countries, suicide rates increase with age. But the postwar rates for the elderly (60 and over) are not nearly as high as the prewar rates. And despite the rumored ill effects of family nuclearization on the mental health of the aged, the incidence of suicide among the elderly of both sexes -- but especially men -- has tended to decline.

So the only real exceptions to the long-term pattern of decreasing suicide rates in Japan are men in their 40s and 50s, who indeed are taking their own lives at unprecedented rates. Among men in the middle decades of their life, the 1983 rate was highest for the 50-54 age group -- 55.6 per 100,000 -- which broke the 54.3 record set at the height of the depression in 1932.

The 50-56 age-group averaged 29.9 for the decade 1973-1982, during which it steadily increased from 22.7 to 38.6. This was only slightly lower than the postwar 1947-1972 average (29.9), though much lower than the prewar 1918-1943 average (42.1). So the currently high rates for middle-aged men will have to remain high for many years before the overall postwar average exceeds the prewar average.

The trend towards higher rates of suicide among middle-aged men is not new. Last year [1983] marked only the most violent eruption of the volcano which began to emerge about a decade ago in what was once a relatively peaceful valley in the middle of the male life cycle -- a haven for men who were then more certain of their raison d'etre in Japanese society, and more secure in their jobs and marriages.

Many of the men who are facing the greater risk of suicide in the middle of their adult years are members of the "one-digit Showa" generation. Such men were born between 1926 and 1935, the first decade of the reign of the present emperor, Hirohito, whose reign name is Showa (1984 is officially called Showa 59). The high suicide rate among middle-aged men is being blamed on the social environment which is generally believed to have shaped their characters. Middle managers in their 40s and 50s are said to be stressfully sandwiched between the world views of the authoritarian older managers who have dominated their careers, and the carefree younger workers who they in turn must supervise.

A government white paper on livelihood, published in November 1984, reported results of an attempt to analyze the economic life cycle of the average bread winner -- a married man with two children. The model-household male between 48 and 55 has to spend far more than he makes in order to manage home mortgages and the costs of his children's educations. He must bear this burden at the height of his career, when his company responsibilities are heaviest and his leisure time is most limited, and when his physical strength begins to ebb and his mental health becomes more vulnerable.

But the middle-aged men who are rushing to death have a multitude of problems, not all of which are attributable to the demands of corporate life. After all, the great majority of their age peers have managed to endure the same hardships without killing themselves -- long and arduous commutes, overtime and drinking obligations after regular hours, short vacations, assignments and transfers which separate them from their families, and intense competition for management posts. The fact that the victims are likely to be divorced or have domestic problems, or to be in debt over their heads (for reasons and at interest rates that violate common sense), suggests that their grief is caused as much by personality as by culture.

In contemporary culture males of the early-Showa generation are often ridiculed. They are laughed at and pitied in cartoons and other caricatures which portray them as social curiosities who "eat everything served them, even the grains of rice that stick to the lids of their lunch boxes," in the words of Socialist Party dietman Tetsu Ueda, who was born in Showa 2 (1927) and so passed his youth during the shortages, frugalities, and deprivations of the depression, the war, and the reconstruction period.

"They don't let the water overflow the bathtub," Ueda continues in his edited book on the one-digit Showa syndrome. "They are never late for work. They shed tears easily. They can't walk arm in arm with a woman. They don't know how to dance. They can't say thanks to their wives. They have a strong sense of filial piety. They don't know many songs when it comes time to sing at pubs and parties. They can't throw away even useless things."

Early-showa man

In resorting to suicide, the early-Showa man rules himself out as a useful member of the country he helped to rebuild. His generation is praised for its unselfish diligence in sustaining Japan's high growth rate through the critical postwar years. The life-employment and seniority systems, at least in the larger companies and in the national and local civil services, promised to compensate him for the sacrifices he made on the altar of national achievement with rewards of higher status and pay when older.

But the job security carrot began to go limp about the time of the oil crises in the 1970s when employers discovered that they could no longer afford to pay more and more for the services of workers who become less and less productive with age. Longer life expectancies and later retirement ages, together with lower birth rates, have increased both the number and percentage of older men in the work force, thus further undermining the seniority system.

Life Goals

"The early-Showa generation lost its life goals when Japan was defeated," said Hamamatsu University psychiatrist Kenshiro Ohara, well-known for his studies of suicide. "Everything they were told by their parents and older siblings took a 180 degree turn. When humans lose what they consider most important, they commit suicide." Ohara predicts that this generation may face even higher suicide rates as it moves into retirement, because many of its members have never learned to relax and enjoy life.

Other common experiences in childhood and adolescence may have further exacerbated the early-Showa generation's propensity for suicide. The very same generation was decimated by suicide in the 1950s when its members were in their late teens and 20s. So when they were in the prime of their youth, those who are committing suicide today lost many of their age peers to "the sickness unto death" caused mainly by depression, chronic and acute. Such early death experiences may even go back to the generation of their parents, which set prewar suicide records of its own in the late 1920s and 1930s in the midst of economic calamity and militarism.

"They've worked hard and become affluent," said Ohara about early-Showa men. "But they lose their object in living when, as middle managers, their diligence goes unappreciated by those above and below them." While this suggests a process of demographic thinning within a generation that finds itself "used" and discarded, suicide remains a very complex and enigmatic act.

The social and cultural "causes" and "reasons" reported in journalistic and academic accounts of an individual act of self-destruction may well have been contributing or even precipitating factors. Case histories, though, tend to reflect psychological variations that belie attempts to reduce suicide in to a purely social or cultural behavior.

Ultimately very personal mechanisms determine how individuals not only cope with the encouraging and alienating signals from society and culture, but more importantly how they handle the expectations and doubts that they apply and harbor toward themselves. Yet patterns do emerge that lend themselves to broader socio-cultural interpretations. So Japan's traditional U-shaped suicide curve (found also in most other Asian countries but also in some Euro-American nations) seems to mirror life-cycle patterns like stress and anxiety in youth, security in middle age, and loss of meaning in old age.

Given the tendency for suicide rates to be governed primarily by life-cycle factors (while suicide acts are governed by psychological factors), it it doubtful that the recent shift of the male peak from the younger to the middle years of life can be explained as a purely generational event. While there may be generational influences, the statistics suggest that the trend is not limiting itself to those born in the early-Showa period.

If Japan's middle-aged suicides offer any food for thought, it is that devotion and diligence are life-threatening values when held obsessively and compulsively in the name of excessive self-denial and dependence. It has long been suspected that Japan has been over-producing dedicated but socially dull and culturally rigid businessmen, who lack endo-skeletons, and who fall apart when the exo-skeleton of the group fails to support their soft mental tissues.

It may border on national character myth to conclude that Japan's middle-aged suicide crisis will not be in vain if Japanese parents take it as a warning that all study and no play make Taro a vulnerable boy when a man. But to the extent that the bureaucratic statistics are reliable, there is no denying the reality that the premature deaths of the early-Showa generation have already made it the most suicidal in Japan's modern century.


A 40-year-old reader of the Mainichi Daily News version wrote a short letter to the editor, pointing out that William Shakespeare said "the world is a stage for all people" -- and then observing that "Men and women have too many roles to play in this day and age to come to life's end as early as 40!" (MDN, 4 January 1985, page 2).

However, until the advent of modern medicine, people in most countries, including England and Japan, could expect to live to only about 40. Every year beyond 40 was at the expense of someone who had died before 40 -- statistically speaking.

On a somewhat more humorous note -- funny things happen in the world of journalism. Most bloopers involve taking "facts" for granted, or even making things up.

MDN, an English language daily in Japan, had a deal with Far Eastern Economic Review, a weekly magazine published in Hong Kong, that allowed it to reprint any FEER piece it thought might interest its readers. Reprints are often treated like wire stories, which editors are free to cut and headline to fit their needs. In the case of this article, MDN kept FEER's headline but added the three subheads, one of which corresponded to one of the three breaks in the FEER version.

The "Influential 1981" subhead is odd because it leads the reader to think positively about a study that seriously distorts the truth.

But most revealing to me, about the strange things that can happen in a news room, was to read at the end of the MDN reprint that "The writer is a teacher at Canadian Academy, Kobe".

I reread the byline, and sure enough it said "By William Wetherall in Tokyo" -- which was who, and where, I was. I had never heard of the Canadian Academy. Nor did I work at the Canadian Embassy or Air Canada.

How that bio blurb became attached to the MDN reprint remains a mystery. Ian Buruma, my editor at FEER, who knew exactly where I lived and what I did (and didn't do) for a living, assured me no one in Hong Kong had anything to do with it.

On second thought, false bios might be a good way to throw people off my trail should I every write something really nasty about anyone. "The writer is a tutor at Yamaguchi College in Kabukicho" or something ought to do it.

15 January 2006