Japan reports suicides faster and more accurately than anywhere else in the world. Unlike most countries, here they are compiled at the end of every month. During the Covid pandemic the numbers have told a disturbing story.


In one month, October, the female suicide rate in Japan went up by more than 70%, compared with the same month in the previous year.


What is going on? And why does the Covid pandemic appear to be hitting women so much worse than men?


Warning: Some may find the content of this story upsetting


Across the table is a 19-year-old woman, with bobbed hair. She sits motionless.


Eventually she ran away from home, but it didn't end the pain and the loneliness.


Ending her life seemed the only way out.


"From about this time last year I have been in and out of hospital many times," she tells me. "I tried many times to kill myself, but I couldn't succeed, so now I guess I have given up trying to die."


What stopped her was the intervention of the Bond Project. They found her a safe place to live, and began giving her intensive counselling.


Jun Tachibana is the founder of the Bond Project. She is a tough woman in her 40s with relentless optimism.

立花雅子(Jun Tachibana)是“情感纽带计划”的创始人。40多岁的她是一位坚强,有着不屈不挠的乐观精神的女性。

image caption:Ms Tachibana hopes the Bond Project provides women with the help they need


Ms Tachibana says Covid seems to be pushing those who are already vulnerable closer to the edge. She describes some of the harrowing calls her staff have received in recent months.


For those suffering physical or sexual abuse, Covid has made the situation much worse.


"A girl I talked to the other day said she is getting sexually harassed by her father," Ms Tachibana tells me. "But because of Covid her father is not working so much and is at home a lot, so there is no escape from him."


A 'very unusual' pattern


If you look at previous times of crisis in Japan, such as the 2008 banking crisis or the collapse of Japan's stock market and property bubble in the early 1990s, the impact was largely felt by middle aged men. Large spikes were seen in male suicide rates.


But Covid is different, it is affecting young people and, in particular, young women. The reasons are complex.


Japan used to have the highest suicide rate in the developed world. Over the last decade it has had great success in reducing suicide rates by around a third.


"This pattern of female suicides is very, very unusual," she tells me. "I have never seen this much [of an] increase in my career as a researcher on this topic. The thing about the coronavirus pandemic is the industries hit most are industries staffed by women, such as tourism and retail and the food industries."


Japan has seen a large rise in single women living alone, many of them choosing that over marriage which entails quite traditional gender roles still. Prof Ueda says young women are also far more likely to be in so-called precarious employment.


image caption:Prof Ueda calls the pattern of female suicides "very unusual"


"A lot of women are not married anymore," she says. "They have to support their own lives and they don't have permanent jobs. So, when something happens, of course, they are hit very, very hard. The number of job losses among non-permanent staff are just so, so large over the last eight months."


Newspaper headlines sounded the alarm. Some compared the total number of suicides by men and women in October (2,199) to the total number of deaths in Japan from Coronavirus up to that point (2,087).


Something particularly strange was happening.


On 27 September last year, a very famous and popular actress named Yuko Takeuchi was found dead at her home. It was later reported that she had taken her own life.


image caption:Japanese actress Yuko Takeuchi was found dead at her own home at 40

图片说明: 年仅40岁的日本女演员竹内侑子被发现死于自己家中

Yasuyuki Shimizu is a former journalist who now runs a non-profit organisation (NPO) dedicated to combatting Japan's suicide problem.


"From the day the news of a celebrity suicide is reported, the number of suicides increases and stays that way for about 10 days," he says.


If you look at the data for suicides by women around the same age as Yuko Takeuchi, the statistics are even more stark.


The celebrity phenomenon


One of the NPO's researchers is Mai Suganuma. She is herself a victim of suicide. When she was a teenager, her father took his own life. Now she helps to support the families of others who have killed themselves.


And just as Covid is leaving relatives unable to grieve for those who have succumbed to the virus, so it is making life for the families of suicide victims much more difficult.


"When I talk to the family members, their feeling of not being able to save the loved one is very strong, which often results in them blaming themselves." Mai Suganuma tells me. "I too blamed myself for not being able to save my father.

“当我和受害者家属交谈时,他们那种无法挽救所爱的人的绝望感非常强烈,这往往让他们非常地自责。” 杉沼麦告诉我。“我也曾责怪自己没能救下我的父亲。”

"Now they are being told they must stay at home. I worry the feelings of guilt will grow stronger. Japanese people don't talk about death to begin with. We do not have a culture to talk about the suicides."


Japan is now in a so-called third wave of Covid infections, and the government has ordered a second state of emergency. It is likely to be extended well into February. More restaurants and hotels and bars are closing their doors. More people are losing their jobs.


image caption: The third wave of the virus has caused Japan's streets to once again fall empty