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Japan records 240 suicides linked to 2011 quake, nuclear disaster over 10 years

This Feb. 20, 2021 file photo shows a sign and barricade blocking entry to a community in the town of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture. (Mainichi/Shigemi Niwaki)

TOKYO -- Japan registered 240 suicides connected with the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and ensuring nuclear disaster up until the end of 2020, statistics from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare have shown.

    Experts believe that prolonged evacuation due to the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station has been a factor in some suicides, and point out the significance of offering support to victims to assist their emotional recovery.

    Cases in which individuals who live in temporary housing facilities and evacuees from areas hit by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters have taken their own lives, as well as cases where it is evident from the contents of notes left behind that the 2011 disasters triggered the suicides, are regarded as "disaster-related suicides." According to ministry data, the number of suicides in connection with the 2011 disasters had hovered above 20 cases each year following the Great East Japan Earthquake. Although the figure dropped to nine cases in 2018, it rose again to 16 in 2019, and five people took their own lives in 2020.

    When viewing the total number of reported disaster-related suicides per location, the prefecture with the highest figure was Fukushima, in northeastern Japan, which recorded 118 cases. As for the other two northeastern Japan prefectures affected the most by the 2011 disasters, Miyagi recorded 58 disaster-related suicides while Iwate reported 54. Health issues were reported as the most common cause of these suicides in 115 cases, while 52 individuals took their lives due to issues at home, and 50 due to economic issues and struggles making a living. In another 63 cases, the exact cause was unknown.

    Citing the high number of suicides in Fukushima, Masaharu Maeda, a disaster psychiatry professor at Fukushima Medical University, commented, "There are many people who have evacuated from municipalities around the nuclear power plant to other areas inside the prefecture, and such individuals experience an ongoing mental burden. Including cases where evacuees left for outside the prefecture, it has been difficult for support to reach individuals the farther they are from their hometowns."

    Meanwhile, in Miyagi and Iwate, the number of suicides were the highest during the first year immediately after the 2011 disasters, which brought on drastic changes in the lives of victims. In recent years, there are said to be cases of suicide which seem to be a result of individuals being isolated as they have weak ties with the community after they moved into different homes or public disaster housing following the earthquake.

    Maeda commented, "Even victims who were able to keep their spirits up immediately after the 2011 disasters get exhausted over time. People rebuild their lives and recover emotionally at different paces, and we must not forget that there are those who are still suffering now even after 10 years have passed. Right now, it's hard to keep an eye on those at public disaster housing due to the coronavirus pandemic, so they tend to get isolated. We need to think of ways to deal with this issue, including how to offer support to such individuals."

    (Japanese original by Takayuki Kanamori, City News Department)


    -- Suicide prevention hotline in Japan with English support

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