By Elaine Lies
TOKYO, June 8 (Reuters) - Japan set a target on Friday for cutting its suicide rate, one of the highest among industrial nations, by more than 20 percent over the next decade.
To help meet that goal, the government plans a wide range of steps to deal with social issues such as an ageing society, unemployment and overwork, all aimed at bringing the nation’s suicide rate down by 2016.
"Up until now, government suicide prevention policies have focused mostly on mental health, but now we’re going to take a good look at all aspects of society," said an official at the Cabinet Office, which released an outline of suicide prevention measures.
Police figures issued a day earlier showed that the number of those who took their own lives remained stuck above 30,000 for the ninth straight year, with suicides among the elderly and young people rising.
The guidelines call for the first time for separate policies for different age groups, with particular attention being paid to young people and the elderly. Policies to deal with unemployment and financial problems, a large cause of death among middle-aged men, are also urged.
If the target is met, the 2005 suicide rate of 24.2 per 100,000 people would fall to 19.4 by 2016, the Cabinet Office said.
According to statistics compiled by the National Police Agency, 32,155 people killed themselves in 2006, down from a record 34,427 in 2003.
Particularly alarming last year was a sharp jump in suicides among junior high school students, which rose to 81, up 23 percent. Police blamed the rise on school bullying.
A health ministry report released on Wednesday showed suicides at 29,887 in 2006, down 2.2 percent and the lowest since 2001. The disparity with the police figure is due to reporting differences.
The lower numbers in both cases are believed due to Japan’s economic upturn, with police data showing that the number of those who killed themselves due to financial woes fell. The major cause was health concerns.
Japan has one of the highest suicide rates for industrial nations, which experts say is due partly to an absence of religious prohibitions against suicide as well as a custom of committing suicide to save loved ones from embarrassment or take responsibility for failure or disgrace.
In 2000, Japan’s suicide rate was 24.1 per 100,000 according to the World Health Organisation, second in the Group of Eight nations after Russia at 39.4. The U.S. rate was 10.4.
Experts welcomed the guidelines even though no specific measures were included, saying the government now appears more serious about tackling the issue.
"This is only the second time the government has issued broad guidelines on suicide prevention, and the first since 2002," said Yukio Saito, who heads a suicide hotline called Inochi no Denwa, or Phones of Life.
"This time the guidelines are much more comprehensive and give us a framework to work with. It’s a very good forward step."