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How COVID contributed to a worrying spike in female suicides in Japan

Tokyo — Japan issued its annual white paper on suicide this week, and the results highlight rising deaths among women, particularly those in “non-regular” employment.

The major daily newspaper Nikkei noted that the sharpest rises in female suicides were among clerical workers (270 deaths, up from the five-year average of 204); other service-sector workers, at 194; sales clerks, at 133; and health care workers, at 174.

“Regular” employees in Japan are generally on full contracts. They tend to earn more and are harder to fire, whereas non-regular workers, which includes part-time and non-contract jobs, may do the same work, but under much less favorable working conditions.


For immediate help if you are in a crisis in the U.S., call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential. The Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990, is also confidential, free and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. People can also text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.


The increase in suicides among working women increased Japan’s overall suicide rate for the first time in 11 years, despite the fact that suicides among men and unemployed women trended lower. 

Woman walking at station
A woman walks on a train platform at a station in Japan.

Getty/iStockphoto


The white paper also noted that the “copycat” phenomenon was a factor in rising female suicides in 2020 — a year when news of two actresses taking their own lives appears to have spurred an increase in other women doing the same.

The health ministry acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic may have been a significant factor in the disheartening statistics.

“It’s possible that the rise reflected changes in the working environment among non-regular workers, many of whom are women,” the ministry said.

The trend marks a setback for Japan, which has long struggled to reduce its unusually high suicide rate. Numbers peaked in 2003, with 34,427 suicides. While the total dropped to 21,081 last year, it remains proportionately one of the highest in the world. 


Death from overworking

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Most suicides here still occur among men (14,055 last year) but this rate has dropped steadily for over a decade, as the rate for working women and students has crept higher. 

Keitaro Kawakami, a “work-style researcher” who writes for ITMedia Business Online, noted that since 2014, both regular and irregular female employment had marked steady growth in Japan. While regular female employment continued to expand during the pandemic, irregular job growth for women reversed for the first time in years. 

Pandemic-triggered joblessness and poverty have been blamed for the rising female suicide rate. But Kawakami questioned whether unemployment was really fueling what appears to be a mental health crisis among women with non-regular jobs.

He said police reports do not list “job loss” as a prime reason for female suicide; the most significant rise in suspected suicide causation was in “work-related problems,” including “workplace errors,” “changes in workplace environment” and especially “problems with human relationships at the workplace.”

As Japan Sees An Increase In Suicides During The Covid Pandemic, One Man Continues His Mission To Save Lives
A phone box with numbers for suicide prevention support as well as a bible and messages of support is seen at the Tojinbo cliffs in Tojinbo, Japan, February 23, 2021.

Carl Court/Getty


While Japanese companies have been urged to beef up efficiency and productivity and enable more workplace flexibility, Kawakami believes the flip-side of those reforms is that some employees are being transferred, say, from clerical positions to sales or other jobs they feel ill-equipped for. He says some part-timers have also likely been compelled to take on heavier workloads, with less flexibility in their shifts.

Pandemic-induced changes in workplaces, in other words, while benefiting the bottom line and some workers, have made life intolerably stressful for others, particularly for non-regular female workers. 

In addition to the alarming rise in women taking their own lives, child suicide also hit a record high of 499 — 100 more than the previous year.

While suicides among elementary, middle and high school students dropped precipitously during the first state of emergency in spring 2020, the rate spiked as schools reopened in June and then again after the summer break ended, in September. The total was the highest since record-keeping began in 1978.

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