TOKYO – Japan's economy is getting better after more than a decade of decline, but the pressure on workers appears to still be intense — with a new government report showing a 52 percent jump in compensation paid out for work-related suicides last year and work-induced mental illness at a record high.
The report, citing the number of cases leading to compensation, found workers who committed suicide due to work-related stress hit a record 65 cases in 2006, compared to 42 the previous year, Health Ministry official Junichiro Kurashige said Tuesday.
The number of workers who received compensation for work-induced mental illness hit 205, up 61 percent from a year earlier, he said — also a record high. The number of applications for compensation for mental illness or suicide also rose sharply, to 819 cases, a 24 percent jump.
The numbers reflect a push by the government to get more workers or their families to seek compensation if they are legitimately entitled to it, and Kurashige warned that the compensated cases still probably reflect only a tiny fraction of the overall problem, which remains largely unknown and ungauged.
Japan's suicide rate is among the highest in the industrialized world. More than 32,000 Japanese took their own lives in 2004, the bulk of them older Japanese suffering financial woes as the country struggled through a decade of economic stagnation.
In response, the Japanese government has earmarked substantial funds for programs to help those with depression and other mental illnesses and is more actively involved in trying to get those affected to come forward through awareness programs.
The figures are also seen as reflecting a change in social attitudes toward mental illness.
Though once seen as shameful, more Japanese are willing to acknowledge they suffer from depression or stress-related illnesses now than in the past, and the government has begun easing its compensation restrictions to allow more people to qualify for help.
"Before, people tried to hide that they were suffering from depression," said Mikio Mizuno, a lawyer specializing in death from overwork. "Now, it has become more widely known that people suffer and commit suicide from work-related depression, leading to more applications for workers' compensation. The psychological burden from work is also increasing."
The Health Ministry report came as Tokyo announced Japan's economy continued to grow, though it had slowed to a 2.4 percent pace in the first quarter, was still healthy and seemed to be stabilizing.
The world's second-largest economy slipped into stagnation in the early 1990s after a burst of growth, leading to a series of bankruptcies, layoffs and an increased focus on jobs with fewer benefits and long-term security.
Adding to the stress of financial insecurity, Japanese workers also often face long overtime hours, with little or no compensation, followed by long commutes out of the crowded capital area, where most of Japan's population is concentrated.