JIN-456 -- Depressed Japan

The ‘JIN’ Japan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 456 Wednesday March 12, 2008, Tokyo

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Depressed Japan

There is evidently a growing trend in Japan towards using the
Internet for social activities, such as dating
(www.japaninc.com/tt460). However, a more sinister form of
social activity is also taking place – for many Japanese people,
the Internet is a space where depression sufferers can find
similar individuals and, rather than try and support each other,
make arrangements to meet up and commit suicide as a group. The
latest of such suicide pacts took place last Saturday. A man out
walking in Aomori discovered five bodies in a car. On closer
inspection, it was revealed that these five people, four of whom
came from different parts of the country, had sealed off the
inside of the car and choked themselves to death by burning a
noxious substance.

Such stories are relatively common place in Japan, particularly
over the last few years and social networking on the web has
been the preferred medium for correspondence among suicide pact
participants. Behind this, there is evidence to suggest that,
without going so far as actually committing suicide, growing
numbers of Japanese people are clinically depressed. Statistics
from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry suggest that one in
fifteen suffer from depression at some point in their lives.

There are many reasons for this rise. For one, awareness, and
therefore diagnosis, of depression has risen sharply in the past
decade. Many commentators point out the role of the
pharmaceutical industry and its marketing of anti-depressants as
a key cause of this heightened consciousness about mental
health. Not only has the use of drugs become increasingly
widespread (GlaxoSmithKlines’ anti-depressant sales tripled
between 2001 and 2003), there is a growing awareness of mental
health issues driven by drug company marketing campaigns; this
has also redefined understanding of what depression is.

Mike Mills’ film last year ‘Does Your Soul Have A Cold?’ (an
anti-depressant advertising slogan) explored this point and
Mills’ presentation silently questions the power of drugs to
really help sufferers – his focus is firmly on the human
struggle against constant, unrelenting misery. However, although
awareness in Japan has grown, there is still a stigma attached
to depression, arguably much more so than in the US and Europe.
In many ways, Japanese society puts more pressure on individuals
to show outward happiness and this may explain why depression is
more likely to result in suicide in Japan; if depression is less
acceptable, suicide might seem to be an easier option than
seeking help.

Other experts link Japan’s increasing number of depressives and
suicides to the elderly population. The suicide rate is
approximately 10% higher among those aged 65 and over. While
Internet group suicide pacts, normally involving under-40s and
younger, attract the attention of the mass media, the majority
of suicides take place under less dramatic circumstances – an
overdose of sleeping pills or simply wondering into the
labyrinthine Aokigahara forest near Mt Fuji, a suicide hot spot.
Kaneko et al, writing in the Community Mental Health Journal,
suggest that most suicides are not only committed by the elderly
but also in more rural areas and that a key factor is physical
health. According to their research, ‘The strongest association
with depressive symptoms was found among poor subjective
physical health,’ which therefore makes the elderly much more
prone to depression. This means that the problem will likely get
worse over the coming years which could also lead to a further
rise in the suicide rate despite government efforts to reduce

Other analysts blame increased levels of depression on financial
hardship and growing social disparity and this has been
something that help-groups have been trying to target. For
example, signs put up by loan shark victims in the Aokigahara
forest assuring would-be suicides that their financial problems
can be resolved and displaying a helpline number have reportedly
saved 29 lives.

Additionally, the rise in awareness about depression in Japan
also comes from the number of high profile celebrities who have
spoken about their mental health difficulties. These include
Princess Masako and the sumo wrestler Asahoryu. Such stories
further exacerbate the paradox in that heightened awareness
pushes up the number who seek medical help for their condition
while also pushing people into examining their mental state from
a clinical point – the line between ‘clinical depression’ and
having a touch of the blues has moved in Japan as in other
cultures. The only clear winner is the pharmaceutical industry.
Last year, Eli Lilly Japan said it expects Japan's
anti-depressant market to grow by 30% to 130 billion yen
($1.08 billion) by the time its anti-depressant product
Duloxetine is released in Japan around 2009
Meanwhile the numbers of people diagnosed with depression is on
the up, and so is the suicide rate.

Peter Harris

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