Live in urban Japan long enough and, as shocking as it sounds, you’re eventually going to have the distinctly unpleasant experience of riding a train that hits and more than likely kills a human being.
Even if you aren’t experiencing it firsthand, walking into a Tokyo train station only to notice yet another train delay caused by what is euphemistically described as a “bodily accident” (jinshin jiko, or 人身事故) is at least a weekly occurrence. It’s enough to make you think Japan must be wrestling with one hell of a suicide problem.
Which is true. But it’s not quite as bad as the Western media would have you believe. Here are five facts about suicide in Japan that are about as uplifting as we have any right to expect from facts about suicide:
1) Japan isn’t the suicide capital of the world.
While Japan has been the world leader in suicides in the past, that distinction currently belongs to Greenland, where an average of 83 out of 100,000 people took their own lives in 2011, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Japan averaged 21.4 in 2013, the most recent year with available data.
2) Japan’s suicide capital isn’t Tokyo.
Despite the city’s frequent portrayal as a cold, unfeeling megalopolis filled with lonely, financially burdened salarymen who are all constantly just this shy of offing themselves, Tokyo isn’t actually Japan’s suicide capital. While it certainly has the highest number of suicides by virtue of its staggering population, Iwate Prefecture in the northeast recorded the highest rate at 27.5 suicides per 100,000 people in 2013.
3) “Train Jumpers” are surprisingly rare.
The overwhelming majority of suicides in Japan are by hanging, according to WHO. Going by some admittedly old data (2003), only 2.1% of male suicides and 3.6% of female suicides were death by train strike. Overdoses, hangings, and even jumping off of buildings and deliberate drowning were more common methods in that same year.
4) Rates are declining.
We just recently talked about how suicides in general in Japan are on the decline in recent years. While suicide is still far and away the leading cause of death among youths in Japan, that statistic actually isn’t as scary as it seems on the surface; with Japan’s low rate of violent crime and death by natural causes unsurprisingly low in that age group, the numbers speak more to Japan’s overall safety than to any kind of disturbing suicide trend.
5) The reasons are pretty much what you’d expect.
While there are certainly “shame culture” aspects to Japan’s high suicide rate, people are generally killing themselves for the reasons you’d probably expect any other place: Financial trouble and heartbreak. Divorce, debt and bankruptcy are some of the most common reasons for suicide in Japan.
So, there you have it. Rest assured that Japan’s relationship with suicide isn’t as unhealthy as you’ve probably heard. Still, all this talk of prematurely buying the farm has left me in dire need of some adorable cat pictures.