Japan Today



Children's depression and suicide a worsening problem


Here is an excerpt, presented by Shukan Asahi (Nov 27), from the suicide note left by an 11-year-old boy: “All I can think of is death. I realize that once you die it’s all over; still, if there is a next life I’d like to come back as an animal like [my pet dog], who doesn’t cause anyone any trouble and even when he does weird things, nobody pays any attention. I’m sorry I couldn’t be better than I was. Goodbye.”

Japan’s suicide rate is notoriously high. For the past decade it’s been above 30,000 a year. Overwhelmingly, suicide is an adult phenomenon -- but not exclusively, and the clinical depression that generally underlies it, Shukan Asahi finds, is steadily trickling down the age scale. Hokkaido University professor Kenzo Denda, author of a book on children’s depression, has published research showing that one elementary school child in 12 suffers from the condition. Among junior high school students the rate is one in four.

To psychologist Rie Ueki, that sounds like an understatement. The problem is worse, she says, than a standardized survey can show.

Ueki had treated “A-kun,” the 11-year-old suicide, and knew his family. Both his parents were lawyers, the very personifications of success. Dinner-table talk was of “winners” and “losers.” A-kun, listening quietly, knew what was expected of him. Measured against such standards, how could he help doubting himself? He feigned strength and happiness, but often his defenses broke down. Trivial slights would overwhelm him. A friend refusing to share his gum with him could plunge him into a sulk that lasted a day and a half.

The parents at last sought medical help, and Ueki diagnosed clinical depression. To her, A-kun would confess the inner turmoil he tried to keep hidden from his parents. “I’ve been suffering since grade one,” he said. “Why was I born?”

National Police Agency statistics cited by Shukan Asahi show nine children committed suicide in Japan last year. It’s not a shockingly high number, but, says Ueki, “I meet children in hospitals who, even if they haven’t actually killed themselves, seem on the very brink of it -- if they kill themselves tomorrow, it wouldn’t surprise me. A-kun was not a special case.”

The obvious question is, what drives such young children to such extremes of despair? There’s no easy answer, Shukan Asahi hears from specialists. Children, unlike adults, can’t articulate their deeper feelings. Sometimes they express themselves through violence, deviant sexual behavior, shoplifting -- but these acts don’t “look like” depression, and even doctors don’t always get the message.

Ueki’s hypothesis is that a child’s depression invariably indicates something seriously off kilter in the family. There are various signs -- the obsession with “winning” and “losing” in the case of A-kun’s family, for instance. Children aware of parents’ extramarital affairs are also at risk, as are, of course, children of parents suffering from depression and stress themselves.

“What children need above all,” says Ueki, “is their parents’ unconditional love. A child who is loved does not become depressed. But nowadays many parents complain of being unable to love their children, to take pleasure in them. These days, it seems more difficult than ever to give children a normal upbringing.”

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Unable to love your children?......What? I didnt know that you had to try to love kids there your kids you love em. They are for most of the years small, squishy, hyper little things...whats not to love.

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Children in Japan is neglected and they need to to be hugged more often from both parents. It’s easy to see that hugging, and touching would boost the tenderness in your children and relationship. Physical expressions of affection can strengthen all sorts of connections. Women who got hugs several times a day from their husbands had lower blood pressure than those who didn’t get hugged as often. Along with hugging, playful and affectionate touching makes you feel closer to the people important to you. That subliminal touching, a touching so subtle that it’s not consciously perceived dramatically increases a person’s sense of well-being and positive feelings toward you.

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A child who is loved does not become depressed.

that is crap. my parents love me a lot, but i still suffered from depression. it's a disease, not something that magically goes away with the love of a parent.

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johnnyreb> A disease? Come on now, you can't catch it. It's a condition.

The point here is that the close affection in many Japanese families is lacking, which is a large contributing factor to those who are more susceptible to the condition of depression becoming depressed.

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that is crap. my parents love me a lot, but i still suffered from depression. it's a disease, not something that magically goes away with the love of a parent.

This is very true but having a more supportive, understanding parents helps. There are plenty of good professional psycologist and possibly a medication available if you look. It's better than doing nothing.

Find ways to help children develop and maintain a positive self-image. Children who feel good about themselves are less likely to become depressed or sucidal. Teach and encourage children to communicate openly. Children who can discuss their problems and concerns are less likely to suffer from trapped feelings and more likely to find solutions. Teach children "healthy" ways to handle stress. Children who learn that stress is a part of life, and develop healthy ways to deal with it, are better able to handle problems throughout their lives.

Allow children to help make personal and family decisions. Children who learn how to make decisions, and be responsible for them, are better equipped to deal with stress and other problems they must resolve. Develop and maintain a stable home environment with healthy family relationships. Depression and suicide risk are highly associated with family problems.

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I agree that childhood depression CAN be a sign of something way off kilter within the family, or at the very least a significant contributory factor.

But to say that is the only reason WAY simplifies this complex condition. A child who is loved may be less likely to become depressed, but if this psychologist simplifies it only in those terms then we have every reason to be fearful for Japan`s mental health - what about genetics? Hormonal imbalances? Traumatic experiences? Personal disposition to just name a few.

I agree however, raising my own kids in Japan alongside other Japanese friends with kids the same age, that generally speaking there does seem to be less emotional contact in Japanese culture. For example, I see obaasan giving their grandchildren ombu on their backs, but there is no eye contact or interaction. I have sat in breastfeeding rooms many times and watched Japanese women barely look at their babies while they read magazines, email on their cellphones, etc etc.

I am NOT saying for a second that all Japanese are like this, or that it is good or bad, or that western culture is somehow better, it is just a trend I have observed over the years in how different things seem to be here compared to home. I was even scolded by a woman once for kissing my children - she said it would give them bacteria and make them ill! I have also heard that kissing children on their mouth causes tooth decay! I dont know if that is true or not, but I couldnt care less either way - they are getting kissed a thousand times a day teeth or no teeth!

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that's messed up right there

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I think that a lot of the problem is that children here don't have much time to themselves just to be kids - they're always at some school associated function or activity.

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perspective i agree. They seem to be either studying in school, doing "club" activities, being shoved into jukus and extra lessons, or playing on their DS. This doesnt include alot of time for crazy, wreckless, run around the park fun with friends.

And to Jonnyrep - its great your parents loved you so much. Perhaps this is the reason you didnt feel the need to off yourself as an 11 year old? Perhaps if your parents had loved you less things would be much different now?

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This comes as no surprise in a land that embraces and worships death.

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Smart child. Had some deep thoughts. Parents are overworked or at least expected to give too many hours at the workplace. It really is not their fault. Economic well being is important as well. Some social laws as in Europe might be considered for the common good. I wonder if he was an only child. We all try to do our best as parents in our cultural melieu and philosophy of life.

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Suicide is cultural. Japan's problem is that it's not a rare event anymore for children to kill themselves, hence it's something that occurs to depressed children.

In SE Asian countries and Carribean countries, suicide is alien to their culture and is extremely rare. The problem is changing an entire culture.

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"A child who is loved does not become depressed.".

This from a TRAINED PROFESSIONAL who, I'm assuming went to Uni and studied and didn't get her degree from a Froot Loops box,pun intended. The article says there are no easy answers why children are in despair according to specialists. Well one answer, or a good start, might be not to let quacks like these practice.

I think it's about time the Japanese look inside themselves and ask some serious questions about their society, beliefs, and what they truly want. Maybe not being so afraid of the outside world and looking for answers there too might be of some help.

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Parents have not time to devote with children they just give the material and scuh they never hug to their own kids. Most of time father do gossips with woman and men in the bar and pub and same mother too. They have to may times to spend outside but not with inside the family.There is no joy with family.All time want to settle by money.Kids wants same as manga life.

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A lot of good points here. The fact that there are generally fewer shows of physical affection between parents and children I believe is a major factor. A lack of open communication in the family is probably another. Add to that, fathers who often work long hours and basically only see their kids on weekends. Plus high expectations placed on children from an early age; having to do club activities, go to juku, pass entrance exams. And there's also the bullying that goes on in schools. It's a wonder that kids make it through the day!!

Some of these things are not going to be easy to change but certainly parents can give their kids lots of love, attention, affection and listen to them. (Every kid should get hugs every day!) Parents can give their kids time to play and have fun; an essential part of their development. Teachers can try to be more aware of bullying and put a stop to it before it gets out of hand. In addition, we can all show children how to be kind and compassionate towards others. When we are thinking of other people; we tend to shift our focus and feel better about ourselves. Finally, as someone else mentioned teach children how to deal with stress and solve problems.

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this country is sick. child suicide doesn't surprise one bit.

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I find it hard to label kids as depressed. They might be down, and it is recognizable, and may be hard to get through to what their need is, but labelling a child with a condition as depressed, only feeds the problem in my opinion. Next thing you know they will be pumping the kids with some drugs with the suggestion to ward it off. And then getting off that merry-go-round is so much farther away I feel, that the whole attitude by society of the family unit, is way off line of the natural instincts. Rectifying it is along the lines of global warming and needs drastic changes. It is going to have to take the initiative of the parents-I dont agree that parent's dont have a choice. It is choosing the hard road for the sake of a child that is getting harder and harder with societal pressures.

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"Where there is no vision, the people perish..." Proverbs 29:18

It goes without saying that Japan's mega cities are overcrowded; the people are stressed and overworked. The county’s bland urban landscapes are devoid of any natural beauty or spiritual connection to the land. Japan has traded its nature loving soul for unsustainable myopic materialistic gain.

The conveyor belt education system is in desperate need of change as almost a million Japanese have dropped out of life and succumbed to a reclusive hikikomori existence. It is any wonder that over 30,000 Japanese commit suicide each year and that number is increasing annually? There is a desperate need in Japan to "get back to the land" and reconnect with a value system based on integration and harmony with nature.

It is vitally important to give a child the hands on experience necessary to develop a goal or vision at an early age. True education starts with sustainable goals that emphasize the spiritual connection between our children and the land. Unless experience with/in nature happens at a critical time in a child’s life, the ability to cherish the natural world as an adult will be extinct. This is why Homo Urbania lives such a depressing life, divorced from joy and real meaning.

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Some great posts. It seems like a mixture of things is causing it: the only child syndrome prevalent in Japan means that huge pressure is put on kids to succeed, then there are external societal pressures to succeed as well as bullying. Then, crucially, there is sleep deprivation caused by way too many clubs & extra schooling, which means that children don't get the valuable time to rest, grow up & simply have fun - life gets way too serious way too soon. Kids need plenty of time to sleep and to play - the every night and weekend juku system is insane, counter-productive and downright sadistic. I have also seen the coldness in society that kirakira25 has revealingly spoken of - a lack of real connections between people, which is rather disturbing. Finally, the work hours of fathers - travelling home on the last train and up and out early in the morning - that system is fundamentally wrong, is counter-productive in terms of productivity and helps no one. Thoroughly depressing all round basically, and I doubt there is anyone brave enough to change the system.

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Communication is key. It's normal to feel depressed, most people do. But to be depressed and not be able to talk to anybody about it is horrible. Parents need to make it part of being a good parent to talk to their kids on a daily basis about ordinary stuff, and not wait until their teacher calls to get involved in their kids lives.

Of all the kids I interact with, the ones that seem the happiest and most "normal" are the ones whose parents I see or hear about taking an active interest in their lives.

The ones that are in danger are the ones handed over to the "system," the salary man assembly line that begins with elementary school, and ends in either retirement, or death.

Obviously, people who get married and have kids because of social pressure, and it's the thing to do are most in danger of producing depressed kids who feel there is no way out.

Those that actually love their husband/wife and see their kids as an end in and of themselves usually do all right.

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Of course the family situation and the relation children have with their parents is an essential factor, but it's a very complex interaction that works in relation with other factors and at the end its the overall balance that lead to depression, or to the ability of the child to cope with the difficulties it faces.

One point not really mentioned yet is factor of the communities children grow up in. Japan used to be a country with a strong sense of community (may be too strong) and a lot of problems have been balanced by this, but nowadays a majority of communities have collapsed and this is especially bad for children.

As mentioned before in a nucleus family society children rely more on their parents and have less freedom to move and make experiences on their own, but a well working neighborhood community can provide the necessary freedom and safety for children to explore the world on their own, to meet the friends that are important for them and to learn how to actively deal with all kinds of problems without their parents always protecting and patronizing them.

In contemporary Japan community is either virtual or related to organizations that are disconnected from the child's life, such as the companies their parents work at, or too rigid and narrow-minded, like the schools and cramp-schools children usually attend.

I believe improving neighborhood communities, as well as creating new kinds of communities that give kids the time, freedom and space to explore and interact with the world on their own, is the essential key to improve the situation for children in Japan.

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Poor darling.. How awful must your life feel for you to be envious of a dog?

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I agree with jonswan.

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Well let's hope that the children will not shift to "homicidal tendencies".

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Well let's hope that the children will not shift to "homicidal tendencies".<

Too late. (See crime section)


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Way too sad. As many who posted here said there seems to be a lack of love and basic affection. Yes, children should study but as I tell my wife, my sons' first "job" is to be a child and experience life. I tell him that you are not part of a "hive" and it is ok for you to think outside the box. We have open talks and nothing is off-limits. I tell him that at times you will fail but you get back up and try again. He knows that there is no shame in failing if you tried your best. It took a while to get my wife to show affection (she never saw it at home) and now she really enjoys that hug and kiss from her son. My son knows that other than becoming a thief or a junkie I will support his choice. Love won't solve everything but it is a great place to start.

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One big issue is that Japanese children do not know about the world outside Japan. That is a general social problem. They think their world is sad?! Think again kid!

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I've come to realize that the general population is horrible at raising mentally healthy children, and this isn't just a Japan-specific issue. Unfortunately it's "inhumane" to take away a person's "right" to procreate. Personally, if it were up to me you'd have to take a test and pass exams to have a kid.

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I think it once has been a luck to the Japanese country and society that things that appear and establish gradually are just being tolerated. The only way to survive in a country with so hard living conditions and complicated politics in the past. But it has become a bane since times have changed completely and things appear to be tolerated that are completely unnecessary to the survival of the country but to cause its own destruction. Like the number of kids and adults committing suicide. In a society were things are generally being tolerated changes are almost impossible. So if nothing serious is going to happen that puts families back together to what they are really made for- protect your own kind- then everything will just stay as it is and simply become a part of the large number of Japanese traditions.

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The death of a child is incomprehensible, even more so when that child takes his or her own life. All the comments I've read have been truly insightful, and I really wish there was a way to get someone in a position of authority to actually READ these discussions. But as has been mentioned by several other posters, this isn't a matter of simply changing a few laws and tweaking the work hours so families spend more time together. This is a problem that is deeply seated in a social and cultural morass that has existed for thousands of years, where pride and respect for the individual has been perennially subsumed and sidelined in favor of group success. I'm not saying that narcicissm is the answer, because I'm not stupid, and I'm not saying that Western thinking is better than Eastern, because God knows Western culture has plenty of its own pitfalls. But I look at all the stresses placed on children in Japan - juku, exams, school activities and clubs -- and it breaks my heart, because NONE of it is done with the child's best interests in mind. It's all about bringing honor and respect to the family, or the school, or the class. It's about bragging rights between neighbors and co-workers, not a celebration of the child's accomplishments. When so much emphasis is placed on, "Be better than everyone else!" there's no room for a child to think, "I want to be the best me that I can be." When anything less than success is considered failure, how can we expect our children to see themselves as anything but a disappointment?

That said, you also have to look at the flipside of the coin: families who don't show any interest in their child whatsoever. These are the parents who never ask how their child did on the algebra test, or where they went after school, or who won the soccer game, and wouldn't give a d@mn if they found out anyway. Unlike the perfection-seeking parents who drive their children down a path of ambition in anticipation of bathing in reflected glory, these apathetic parents cause just as much damage by acting as if nothing their child does matters. Accomplishments aren't lauded, failures aren't discussed, and improvement isn't encouraged or nurtured. If the mantra of the Perfection Parent is, "Be better than everyone else!," the mantra of the Apathetic Parent is, "You'll never be anybody, so who cares?"

In the end, it comes down to communication. Yes, depression is a medical condition, and sometimes the only effective treatment is medication. In some cases the depression is a byproduct of an underlying medical condition, such as a thyroid problem or severe anemia, and in these instances medical intervention is required. But for other sufferers, talk therapy and emotional support might be enough.

This is where a parent's unconditional love for their child is so important. Having a parent they can turn to and depend on for support is vital to a child's mental health. Physical contact -- a hug, a pat on the back, a kiss on the cheek at bedtime -- does so much for the parent/child bond, not just on the child's side, but also for the parent. This is why there are so many strong proponents for breastfeeding; the physical contact provides more than just sustenance. The same goes for any parent whose child has come into their room at two in the morning to say, "Mama, I had a bad dream. Can I sleep in here with you tonight?" That physical contact signifies comfort, protection, and safety to the child. While these broad physical displays of affection fall by the wayside as a child matures, it is nonetheless vital to maintain some kind of physical contact: a hug before school; a pat on the back for a job well-done; a high five after a home run. They're short, they're simple, and they're something every child should receive daily.

But most importantly, a child needs to know that they can go to their parent and say, "Mama, papa -- I didn't score well enough on the exam to get into Keio," and not have to worry about how their parents will react.

"Did you do your best?"

"I did, mama. I really did."

"Then you did just fine."

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its all just getting worse

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Defunct system. Self-serving. Self-interested. Collapsing.

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^^ Kaptain and relmor, stop with the doomsday crap and give a constructive comment.

It is certainly culture that heavily influences this. As a child of 11, I only knew was suicide was objectively. The thought of it was so alien that such a though could have never occurred to me.

However, I've seen children in Japan firsthand. They have so much more riding on their shoulders and are pushed harder than I've seen in America. Suicide is something I've seen in shows that they are familiar with. As is sex, violence, etc. When they are pushed to grow up this fast, their minds aren't always organized enough to handle it properly.

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A disease? Come on now, you can't catch it. It's a condition.

Well I know what you mean, but it fits the definition of a disease. Can be called a disorder or condition as well. The point is, clinical depression is a medical problem.

There are usually two triggers, both of which people have mentioned above. The first is a physiological propensity for depression. The second is environmental / outside factors.

So, a person who has clinical depression is usually affected by both.

A person with the propensity for depression, but a very healthy and stable environment may never develop depression. So loving parents could certainly help, but it's not the only answer.

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Definite lack of affection here. Hugs, kisses and hand holding in serious short supply for kids or adults. I remember a group of housewives giving me a collective "yuck" when I asked if they kissed their husbands. I guess the kids don't see much affection between their parents and don't see much love themselves.

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mnemosyne23: You raised a good point about the perfectionistic attitude that many people have here. There doesn't seem to be much room for mistakes. Also, I think that Japanese people have a tendency to be slightly pessimistic. I got this feeling when talking to my Japanese students. These two traits are closely linked.

As abromofo pointed out, depression is the cause of both internal factors (genetics, your personality and the way you think)and external factors (anything that could be considered a stressor) So a child raised to be a perfectionist will likely also become a pessimist who doesn't believe that he can reach his goals because everything seems wrong in his mind. Then illogical thoughts can cloud his thinking, the world gets smaller and finally he sees no way out.

To stop this progression, parents and teachers, have to tell children that mistakes are okay!! The focus should be on challenging kids to try new things, encouraging them to do their best and helping them to learn from their mistakes so they develop confidence in themselves.

The statement that 'many parents complain about being unable to love their children' really bothers and worries me. How can you not love your own child?!

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Icewind007: I was thinking the same thing. At 11, I don't think I even knew what suicide was let alone consider it an option. Parents have to protect their kids from the overwhelming information out there so they can be kids for a longer time.

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I once had a private student who was in a special high school as she didnt go to junior high for 2 years. She seemed like a nice kid, and her mum and her would come to my family home for lessons. Then one weekend, her mum brought back the books and said she wouldnt be able to come back as she was in the hospital. So sad, but the problem is that many Japanese children just dont talk, and its hard to try and get them to talk.

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Mistakes are how to learn and are keen reminders. Thus preventing bigger mistakes later on. How can you judge a big mistake if you can't take a little one? Waiting until you only make big mistakes means by then we don't have the skills to deal with it. This is what I think is happening. Other people are not so serious, so its not a problem. But many are, and are a problem.

I'm reminded of the line in Batman Begins...."And why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up". Skiers who break their legs, get better, then ski again. We are emotional and physical beings before we understand to be mental beings. Ignoring that important development is irresponsible.

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Wow reading about this is shocking. I lived in Japan for 3 years and I saw parents laughing with children. Parks were always full of families enjoying themselves. At malls, stores, restaurant, and every public place I ever went to kids seemed to be the center of everything. The Japanese families I knew had such great relationships with their children and they were always doing things together as a family. I saw parents laughing at the silly things kids would do and I would think "if it was an American parents they would have been flipping about about this". During the morning I saw parents and faculty guiding little kids to school. I was so amazed by this that I thought us Americans should learn a bit from this. To learn about such high suicidal rates in Japan is a bit shocking to me. I personally would love to go back to Japan. I even knew a teacher at an elementary school who always had such amazing stories about the kids at school. American parents who had their kids in Japanese schools were so pleased with education and how kind the faculty was. I can honestly say that I did not see any physical or mental abuse towards children while living in Japan... They always seemed so happy and parents seemed so understanding.

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I have lived in Japan for sometime. The problem of suicide has some sort of spirirtual root rather than most of the physical factors that are considered to be the major cause. yes! there are physical factors but they contribute in a minimal way to the substantial numbers of deaths through suicide. This accounts for the reason why it is difficult to explain the cause using physical parameters. what one believes in has the power over that person's life, to do him harm or good. There is an emptiness in people that nothing physical can fill or satisfy! I recommend the Christian faith and the believe in Jesus and what He teaches to be the solution for the problem of suicide in Japan.

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Domo Arigato for sharing this blog. On this issue happening in Japan. Most of Japanese youth have been suffering from depression or loss of loved ones or haven't been loved or being alone. i think it on their blood of suicide came from samurai when they loose to a battle they rather kill them selves than an enemy to kill them " the Samurai cannot stand the shame of defeat"

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