TOKYO — Tadahiro Matsushita, the Minister of Financial Services, was found dead today, on World Suicide Prevention Day in what police are investigating as a suicide. He allegedly hung himself in his own home. He would not be he first Japanese government minister to kill himself and he won’t be the last. It was reported that he was struggling with the pressures of his job.

According to Jiji News and other sources, the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, was getting ready to print a story involving Matsushita and an affair involving a woman. Shukan Shincho editors were not available to comment. The last time a cabinet minister committed suicide was in 2007, when agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka hung himself after allegations of fiscal misconduct. 

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said, according to Reuters, "I'm shocked to hear the sad news. He always gave me encouragement when things were tough."

The timing of Matsushita's death underlines the scale of Japan's suicide problem. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Despite laws and outlines adopted by the government to tackle Japan’s high suicide rate, the number of suicides has remained over 30,000 per year for 14 years. While there have been rises and ebbs, the numbers stay high even as Japan’s population continues to shrink.

Suicide hotlines in Japan are so overloaded that getting through to a live operator can take thirty or more calls. Many don’t have that patience.  And there's a new documentary released in Japan this week examines why the Japanese government is unable to significantly reduce Japan’s high suicide rates. Suicide in Japan does not have the same nuance it does in the West. It’s not a religious taboo. The Japanese have a curious history of finding beauty in the act of suicide. Taking one’s life is sometimes considered more heroic than defeat.

The Japanese word for the act is remarkably straight-forward: 自殺 (ji-satsu). It literally means “kill” (殺) “oneself“(自)”.  Suicide in Japan has a long tradition of being a means of apology, protest, means of taking revenge, and dealing with illness.

Rene Duignan, director of the documentary Saving 10,000: Winning a War on Suicide in Japan which was released in Tokyo just prior to Suicide Prevention Day in Tokyo, says: “Nobody tries to highlight the real problems and most importantly what to do about them. I planned to interview 10 people but it turned out to be 100.” 

The documentary poses a very good question:  “Why is it that life insurance companies pay out on suicide? Stop paying people to kill themselves. Stop incentivizing people to die and leave their families alone.” Etsuji Okamoto, a researcher at the Japanese Institute of Health, makes the same arguments convincingly in his 2010 essay "Suicide and Life Insurance." [An English translation is at the bottom]

In post-war Japan, people would sign a life insurance contract. And go straight out, and kill themselves under the nearest train. Eventually, the life insurance companies started putting in one-year exemption clauses in their policies, so people would sign a contract and they must wait one year before killing themselves to get the money. It was still a very good deal for desperate people, so the suicide rate spiked on the thirteenth month. The insurance companies extended the exemption period to two years. The result was that suicides spiked on the twenty-fifth month of the contract.

Insurance agencies and the police say some men laid off from jobs have killed themselves to enable their families to live in comfort. “Japan has no law mandating how insurance companies deal with policy holders' suicides,” said Masaru Tanabe, spokesman for the Life Insurance Association of Japan famously told the Associated Press in 1999. In March 2004, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that insurers “must pay for suicides” if the death occurs within the terms of the insurance agreement.

Novels, movies and the spread of the Internet suicide chat rooms have contributed to the suicide boom in Japan. They have also popularized some areas as suicide landmarks. A forest near the Mount Fuji became the ideal site for committing suicide when a 1960s novel by Seichō Matsumoto was published. The novel tells a story of a couple who meets their end in Aokigahara forest. Others attribute an increase in the number of suicides to Wataru Tsurumi’s description of Jukai (the ocean of trees) as “the perfect place to die” in his 1993 perennial best-selling book The Complete Manual of Suicide. Both books are reportedly often found along with human remains in the forest.

The manual of suicide seems to have been written in a way to “encourage” readers to choose an easy way of getting rid of problems. “If your children have a copy of that book in their room, you should be aware that something might be going wrong in his life, and do everything possible to prevent suicide by detecting early signs of suicide,” says Duignan.

In 2010, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest paper reported that police conducted autopsies in only 4.4 percent of the cases determined to be suicides the year before. The lack of proper autopsies was only brought to the attention of the media after a several cases of a killer being caught after successfully staging murders as suicides. The National Police Agency reportedly said that 39 deaths handled by the police since 1998 as suicide later turned out to be murder and/or criminal actions resulting in death. Sometimes suicides are only found to be murders after a criminal confesses his or her past crimes to the police. Suspicious deaths in Japan only have a 10 percent autopsy rate compared to 50 percent in the United States.  

There’s no doubt that people are killed and the murders sometimes staged as suicides so the criminal can collect the insurance money. But very often, the simple truth is the insured kill themselves for the sake of their family or to pay off their debts.

Taiki Nakashita, a Buddhist priest, social activist, and counselor to those contemplating suicide, says that there is no one way to prevent suicide and no easy answers to the problem. He believes that Japanese society needs to change to support the disadvantaged and poor, adding, "Most people don't kill themselves because they want to die. They kill themselves because they don't know how to go on living. We need to make Japanese a place easier for people to live."