In Focus

Japan sees spike in female suicide rate

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The Covid-19 pandemic is driving a spike in suicides in Japan and women have been impacted the most.

Japan, where suicides are considered a major social issue, is one country that has reported suicides accurately than any other country in the world. Statistics during the pandemic highlight an unusual story. In Japan, more people died from suicide than from Covid-19 in all of 2020.

Monthly suicide rates in Japan increased by 16% between July and October 2020, due to a number of reasons attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. Also, in the wake of this, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga added a Minister of Loneliness to his Cabinet. In 2018, U.K. became the first nation to create a similar Ministry.  This is a major step toward tackling a problem in the country that gained thrust due to the pandemic.  During a press conference, PM Suga, while appointing Sakamoto as the Minister of Loneliness on February 12, said, “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.”

This year, suicide among women saw a steep rise.  According to preliminary figures released by Japan’s National Police Agency, for the first time in 11 years, suicide rates in Japan went up. Over 20,000 people took their own lives in 2020, up 750 from the previous year.  Japan is now in the midst of a third wave of Covid-19 infections, forcing the government to order a second state of emergency.

A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association Network analysed national data obtained from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare from 2016 to 2020 on the monthly number of individuals who died of suicide in Japan.

“Data from Japan on suicide rates from 2010 through September 2020 found an excess of suicide deaths among women, but not men, in July, August, and September 2020”, highlighted the study.

This cross-sectional study found that compared with previous years, suicide rates in 2020 in Japan had increased in October and November for men and in July through November for women.

According to another study by Michiko Ueda, a professor who is studying suicides, the female suicide rate in Japan went up by more than 70% in the month of October compared with the same month in the previous year. Prof. Ueda told the BBC that part of the problem involves an increasing number of single women in the country who don’t have stable employment.

“More women are hired as irregular workers such as fixed-term or part-time employment. This employment modality is the core issue as it does not provide them with sufficient payment and job security” explained Yukari Tsunokake, a development professional actively working on youth unemployment issues with Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Domestic Responsibilities

Covid-19 has forced many Japanese companies to consider home working for the first time which is a challenge, as traditional work ethics encourage long working hours in Japan. This further lead to spillover of work into a personal space.

“Not only economic hardship but also mental health and domestic violence due to restriction in social activity are major factors,” said Yukari Tsunokake. Household burdens and pressure of being caregivers as an added responsibility for women have raised alarms.  Work from home has also led to a rise in domestic violence and sexual assault as reported by Amnesty International, over 13,000 women testified experiencing domestic violence in April 2020 alone, which is 1.3 times higher than in the same period last year. A new term “corona divorce” is now commonly used on Japanese social media to describe the spike in divorce and grievances of couples during the confinement period.

 From a global perspective, Japan is known to have high gender inequality, ranking at 110 out of 149 countries in the 2018 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report (World Economic Forum, 2018).

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 Job losses

While the pandemic has been difficult for many in Japan, the high rate of job losses and unemployment among women is another issue that has added to urban isolation. Since more than half of women are non-regular employees, an outcome of a programme called womennomics to elevate women in the workplace and meet gender equality. Thus, women suffered erratic job losses.

 A survey released by public broadcaster Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) in December last year found 26% of female workers reported employment problems since April, compared to 19% of men.  According to the Labour Ministry’s weekly tally, the total number of people who have become unemployed in Japan amid the coronavirus pandemic reached 79,522.

Celebrity Suicides

After popular actress Yoko Takeuci died by suicide in September, the number of women killing themselves increased. In October, Japan reported a big spike in suicide cases. An analysis published by The British Medical Journal on reporting of celebrity suicide highlight “an increase in the number of suicides by 8-18% in the next 1-2 months, and information on the method of suicide was associated with an increase of 18-44% in the risk of suicide by the same method”.

According to government data, the total number of suicides in Japan was 2,153 in October 2020, the highest monthly count in more than five years, with a greater increase among women.

 Bottom Line

Less communication, fewer chances to meet people and economic stress have generally increased anxiety among people. Japan’s National Center for Child Health and Development, conducted an online survey of more than 8,700 parents and children, 75% of Japanese schoolchildren showed signs of stress due to the pandemic.

“Economic hardships and domestic violence due to restriction in social activity have been affecting women’s mental health the most,” said Yukari Tsunokake.

In such a situation, experts’ advice-seeking help from family, communicating with your loved ones and spending more time with them. The World Health Organisation advises, “it is normal to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared or angry during a crisis. Talking to people you trust can help. Contact your friends and family.”