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    Someone at work mailed me this story with the subject line “WE’RE STILL NUMBER 1!” (Actually, I’m pretty sure Finland and maybe one of the other Scandinavian countries still have higher rates of suicide, but 34000+ out of 125 million people is still plenty high. The US has around 30000 suicides per year, but of course, we have double Japan’s population.) The AP article touches on some of the reasons for the anomalies in the way suicide is distributed here.

    Like everywhere else, the rate is highest among old people with failing health. But there’s also been a major upswing, since the 1990-ish collapse of the economic bubble, of suicides among people who are hopelessly in debt. Lender liability law is effectively non-existent here, and a lot of people go to retail loan companies that lend at rates to which usury doesn’t do justice. Unless the laws have changed when I wasn’t looking, 40% (that’s not a typo) is the highest legal rate lenders can charge. But, this being Japan, it’s possible to add on courtesy fees, processing fees, and in-out-around-through fees that make the interest rate effectively 100% for the most desperate borrowers. And of course, being the most desperate borrowers, those are the people with the greatest difficulty paying the money back.

    People in such situations who don’t want to end their troubles and save their honor by committing suicide have another option: They can disappear. Through the ’90’s, the number of people who did 夜逃げ (yonige, “overnight escape”) and took new identities in distant cities to escape the gangster collection agents who were harassing them was increasing by a good 50% per year. In each of the last several years, I think the figure has hovered at between 100000 and 150000.

    The recent reforms of the National Pension and Social Insurance may not, to put it mildly, make debt and health issues easier to deal with. Plans to increase premiums and cut back on benefits (including both pension money and health care) will make things more difficult for the elderly and for cash-strapped workers–exactly the adult groups whose suicide rates are causing all the alarm.

    Of course, suicide is not considered an honorable option unless it’s the only way to make amends or discharge one’s responsibilities. Otherwise–this is one of the most inspiring things about the Japanese–they have an amazing ability to persevere stoically through desperate circumstances. By this point, no one entertains the fantasy that the Japanese government is going to undertake the kinds of real reforms that will speed up economic recovery (as, say, South Korea did after the Asian financial crisis in 1997). So what we’re in for, probably for several more decades, is more of the slow, painful, not-quite-catastrophic same. Suicide is unlikely to become epidemic, but there’s little reason to expect rates to drop very quickly.

    Added at 17:25, 26 July: Just so people don’t think it’s a total free-for-all here, I might point out that punishment is meted out to those who run outright scams in the moneylending business. Sometimes. If you click on the link, you have to promise you’ll read to the end to see how the officer of one of the loan companies justifies himself. Unreal.

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