A spike in suicides
After a decade of dropping suicide rates in Japan, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase
Asako Eguchi, who works part-time at a Japanese government-sponsored, texting-based counseling service, said she saw an uptick in counseling requests beginning last February when the coronavirus pandemic forced schools and some businesses to close.
One anonymous teenage girl sent her a message through the Line app saying she was already meeting with a psychiatrist before the pandemic hit but the school closures and freeze on after-school activities made her even more unstable. She told Eguchi she didn’t feel better despite taking her medications. She felt no one cared about her and couldn’t understand why she had to continue living.
Eguchi, a licensed Christian counselor, listened to the girl pour out her emotions via text and shared enough advice to calm her down. But she felt a deeper tug to do more for her: “For this teenage girl, there’s probably no one else in all of Japan right now who is praying for her.”
The world’s third-largest economy, Japan has long battled one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world. Residents contend with overwork as well as heavy social pressures that have led hundreds of thousands of Japanese people to turn into social recluses known as hikikomori.
While government initiatives and aid groups helped bring down the numbers in the past few years, the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns have exacerbated the situation. Japan last year recorded a 4.5 percent rise in suicides for the first time in 11 years, according to a March report by Japan’s National Police Agency. Suicides among women saw a 15 percent jump.
Women often work in some of the hardest-hit industries, including tourism, retail, and food services. Researchers said the pandemic not only added pressure on working mothers and housewives, but also may have led to a jump in domestic violence cases. Several mothers Eguchi counseled expressed guilt and shame during recent counseling sessions. “As more people are staying inside the house, a lot of the burden and responsibility falls on the mother,” she said.
Single women also felt more loneliness amid pandemic restrictions, said Chiaki Abe, a psychologist in Tokyo. About 1 in 5 women lives alone in Japan’s capital.
During online sessions, Abe said, many of her patients complained of isolation: “The personal issues such as relationship issues or career issues or cultural adjustments were there prior to COVID-19. But COVID-19 intensified their depression, anxiety, and sense of loneliness.”
At least six Japanese celebrities also took their lives last year, including actor Akira Kubodera, 43, whom first responders found unresponsive inside his Tokyo apartment on Nov. 13. After each celebrity death, Eguchi found more clients talking about or considering suicide.
The topic of suicide remains largely taboo in Japan, but the government’s response began shifting public perceptions in the 2000s. In 2006, lawmakers passed a national policy on suicide prevention. The allocation of government funds toward suicide awareness campaigns has pushed down the number of suicides since 2009. Abe noted that Tokyo now has 24 lifeline services and most schools now operate student counseling centers.
In February, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto as the “minister of loneliness” to respond to the rising suicides. “I hope to promote activities that prevent loneliness and social isolation and protect the ties between people,” Sakamoto told reporters. Britain is the only other nation to set up a similar office in 2018.
The topic of suicide remains largely taboo in Japan.
Despite the official response, Abe believes suicide cases have persisted because Japan still struggles with a shame culture where people are unwilling to seek help for mental health issues. One male client sought Abe’s services one year after he started to battle depression, delaying because he thought counseling was only for crazy people.
Eguchi said the culture of shame also points to a need for Christian counseling, an area that is lacking in the country. She knows of fewer than 10 professional Christian counselors in Japan. In 2018, she led a Biblical counseling program for 19 participants through the Christ Bible Institute (CBI), where she earned her theology degree.
Brett Rayl, CBI’s Japan director, said church leaders are often hesitant to offer counseling services as many of them never received any counseling training themselves. Yet Rayl sees things changing: The institute launched a Christian Counseling for Japan project last year for its students and opened it to other church leaders. Some 30 students enrolled, double their average class size. Rayl said the pandemic forced them to halt the program, but they plan to resume it this fall.
CBI also translated and printed 5,000 copies of a book on Biblical counseling by Paul David Tripp—10 times more than their publisher’s typical slot for evangelical books. They gave out all the copies and are currently halfway through a second batch.
“There is a hunger and desire for training, resources, and support,” Rayl said.
Although Eguchi can’t directly share her faith while working with clients on the text-in service, she says it still gives her a solid foundation to walk with people in their pain and sorrow, following the example of Jesus.
“What they really need to know is that their worth is in someone that was willing to die for them,” she said. “Even if they do have shame or guilt, there’s someone who took that all upon Himself and went to the cross for them.”
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