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Japan is one of a small group of countries where suicide deaths during the pandemic have exceeded those from the virus. More women, children and adolescents have committed suicide.

The number of suicides in Japan rose last year for the first time in 11 years, as the fallout from the pandemic wiped out years of progress in tackling the stubbornly high phenomenon in the country.

The Ministry of Health announced Friday that 20,919 people died by suicide in 2020 in the archipelago, an increase of 3.7% over one year. By comparison, 3,460 people in Japan died from the coronavirus last year.

This is the first annual increase in suicides in 11 years in Japan, which regularly deplores the highest suicide rate among the G7 countries (16.6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020) but which has worked in recent years to better support psychologically fragile people, with some success.

The number of suicides in Japan, which peaked at around 34,000 in 2003, fell to 20,000 in 2019, the lowest since 1978.

Women, children and adolescents in particular were more likely to commit suicide in the country last year, experts believing that the pandemic and the restrictions on the virus appear to have particularly affected them.

Japan has so far recorded lower infection levels than many other countries, while avoiding mandatory lockdowns.

After first declining in the first half of 2020, suicides began to increase in July. An evolution confirming an expert model, according to which suicides first tend to decrease in the initial phase of a period of crisis, before rising sharply thereafter.

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Gender inequalities

This increase was “a turning point”, says Michiko Ueda, associate professor of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo, a specialist in the phenomenon of suicide in Japan.

“The coronavirus is certainly a major factor”, she told AFP, not excluding that “the figures are increasing again this year”.

Mental health experts around the world have warned of increased risks of suicides during the pandemic, due to factors including stress, economic hardship and family abuse.

A health worker removes a protective mask in the intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients at St. Marianna University Hospital in Kawasaki, Japan, May 4, 2020.

But Japan is likely one of a small group of countries where suicide deaths during the pandemic have exceeded those from the virus.

Suicides last year in Japan also followed different patterns from those of previous years, Ms. Ueda pointing to the particularly high increase in the number of suicides among women last year (+ 14.5%), while on the contrary, fell by around 1% in men.

Ms. Ueda cites as probable factors the increase in unemployment among women, more of them in precarious jobs (especially in hotels and restaurants, two sectors very affected by the crisis), and increased domestic and parenting tasks for them.

“The coronavirus has highlighted the inequalities between the sexes in Japan”, adds Yayo Okano, professor of feminism at Doshisha University in Kyoto (west), recalling that the domestic tasks of women are still very disproportionate in Japan.

Youth anxiety and loneliness

The figures for suicides among young people under 18 in Japan are also alarming: more than 300 elementary and secondary school students committed suicide between the beginning of April and the end of November 2020, a jump of almost 30% compared to the same period. the previous year.

“The risks are high for young people,” who “feel anxiety about their future” and particularly suffer from the scarcity of social relations, says Akiko Mura, counselor at the Tokyo Suicide Prevention Center.

Experts also believe that a series of celebrity suicides in Japan in 2020 could also have influenced vulnerable people.

Munetaka Kaneko, advisor to the suicide prevention NGO Sotto, believes that the government must now make the response to suicide a key element of its policy to fight against the coronavirus, with “prevention measures adapted to the era of the pandemic “.

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