Academic journal article Care Management Journals

Suicide and Older Adults in Postdisaster Northeastern Japan

Academic journal article Care Management Journals

Suicide and Older Adults in Postdisaster Northeastern Japan

Article excerpt

Following the Tôhoku Daishinsai or Great Tôhoku Earthquake, one of the widely reported concerns was the potential for a significant increase in suicides among those leftto deal with the disaster. The Los Angeles Times, for example, reported the worries of Naoko Sugimoto-based on the "grapevine" of Japan's mental health system-that a trickle of suicides might turn into a "river" exemplified by

the farmer who hanged himself, distressed about a cabbage harvest ruined by radioactive fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant; the overworked government worker near the complex who took his life; the father who killed himself after a fruitless search for his child after the tsunami. (Glionna, 2011)

These fears seem quite reasonable given the fact that Japan has shown among the highest suicide rates in the world and experienced a significant increase in suicides in the late 1990s that has yet to return to earlier levels (Traphagan, 2010).

Although there is much research to be done concerning suicide in general following the disaster, in this article, I explore the more specific issue of elder suicide in Tôhoku since March of 2011. Throughout this article, the basis for my research is the following hypothesis:

(a) Older adults in Tôhoku were disproportionately affected by the disaster in March of 2011. (b) Elders in the Tôhoku region show high rates of suicide when compared to other parts of Japan. Therefore, (c) given the levels of stress experienced, suicide rates among the older adults are likely to have increased following the disaster.

I begin by discussing some of the general trends in recent years concerning suicide in Japan and specifically within the Tôhoku region. Following this, I will explore some of the data related to suicide and the postdisaster situation in Tôhoku. This article relies on qualitative data and will emphasize the use of descriptive statistics because the samples involved are not sufficiently large to employ more complex statistical methods.


Over the past decade, suicide has grown to be viewed as one of the more pressing social problems in Japan. In 2007, the Japanese government published a White Paper on countersuicide that discusses methods for reducing the suicide rate and stresses the importance of developing systems of addressing the needs of suicide survivors, potential suicide victims, and the families of suicide survivors and those who have attempted suicide (Cabinet Office, Government of Japan, 2007). The government is also spending significant funds ($220 million by 2017) to develop programs for suicide prevention and support. Indeed, suicide is a leading cause of death in Japan, having raised as high as sixth among causes of death (Yamamura, Kinoshita, Nishiguchi, & Hishida, 2006:575), and the suicide rate for Japan has typically hovered around 25 per 100,000 for the past several years (Traphagan, 2010); by comparison, the suicide rate in the United States is normally around 11 or 12 per 100,000; and in 2000, the world suicide rate was estimated to be roughly 16 per 100,000 (Hasegawa et al., 2011:276). Japanese men are considerably more likely to commit suicide than women are; and particular age groups, such as teens and middle-aged men, are particularly prone to suicidal behavior (Yamamura et al., 2006:576-578). Yamamura et al. (2006) note that there is a correlation between population den- sity and suicide in Japan, with lower density population areas exhibiting higher suicide rates than more densely populated urban areas.

Among the more troubling aspects of Japanese suicide over the past 15 years has been a sharp increase in the suicide rate since the late 1990s. Figure 11 shows suicide rates in Japan from 1970 to 2010. Although it is not clear where the cause in the increase during the late 1990s may lie-there were some changes made in how suicides are reported as well as ongoing problems with the Japanese economy- the suicide rates have hovered around 25 for more than a decade, a rate that represents an annual number of suicides that typically exceeds 30,000, which is higher than for the United States despite the much larger U. …

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