Friday, July 2, 1999 Published at 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
Japan on suicide alert
Middle-aged men are facing huge financial difficulties
Japan's worst recession in 50 years is being linked to the country's highest ever suicide rate - notably among middle-aged men.
The figures have been released by the Japanese Government, which reported an unprecedented 35% surge in suicides in 1998.
Japan's economic woes are being blamed for the rise. The country is grappling with its worst post-war recession, and middle-aged workers are paying the price in salary cuts and layoffs.
The suicide epidemic coincides with rising levels of crime and divorce, and there is widespread dissatisfaction with the education system.
Last year's figure of 26 suicides per 100,000 people represented a dramatic increase from a rate of just above 16 in the late-1960s.
It is more than double the rate in the United States, although lower than in several European countries including Lithuania and Hungary.
The announcement in Japan made headline news, despite a deeply ingrained culture that regards suicide as an honourable way to atone for failure and express remorse.
So ingrained is it that there is even an expression for it. "Inseki-jisatsu", which literally means "suicides to take responsibility", is being highlighted as one of the main motives.
The spread of suicides linked to overwork or redundancies resulting from the recession has caused mounting concern in recent years.
In one case last year, three businessmen rented out rooms at the same hotel, shared a final drink and hanged themselves.
Earlier this year, a tyre company worker who felt pressured into early retirement stabbed himself to death in the company president's office.
The trend has prompted a spate of lawsuits. In March, a court ruled for the first time that a company employee was driven to suicide by overwork and ordered the government to compensate his family.
"Middle-aged men just can't cope with the current situation," said Hiroshi Kawahito, a lawyer who works on such cases, who was quoted by Nihon Keizai newspaper on Friday.
"A social framework to support them is urgently needed," he added.
Men overall were hit especially hard: 23,013 males and 9,850 females committed suicide in 1998. Suicides were most prevalent among those in their 50s, numbering 7,898 in 1998, up 46% from a year earlier.
Of all suicides committed in 1998, those that were clearly prompted by economic difficulties accounted for 6,058 - an increase of 70%.
Japan's unemployment rate jumped to a record 4.6% in February this year.
Illness was another major factor, believed to behind 11,499 suicides - up 27%.
The report also showed increases of 30% to 45% in suicides by the unemployed, the self-employed and corporate managers.
Among the young, 17 junior school children killed themselves in 1998, compared with 12 the previous year, while junior high school student suicides increased by 40 to 102. At high schools, 220 students took their own lives in 1998, an increase of 51.