Japan has a national problem with suicides, and the Self-Defense Forces are no exception.

According to the Defense Ministry, from fiscal 1994 to 1997 the number of suicides among administrative officials and service members was between 40 and 69 per year, but increased gradually before hitting 100 suicides in fiscal 2004 and 101 in fiscal 2005 and fiscal 2006. In fiscal 2009, 86 took their own lives: 53 in the Ground Self-Defense Force; 15 in the Maritime Self-Defense Force; 12 in the Air Self-Defense Force; and six administrative officials. Eighteen are thought to have been driven to suicide by work-related stress, while 16 were mentally ill and another 16 were in serious debt. (Link)

Although suicides are generally on the decline, 83 SDF members killed themselves in 2008, for a rate of 33 per 100,000. The suicide rate among Japanese civilians is  24 per 100,000. In comparison, the overall rate for the United States civilian population is 11 per 100,000.

The U.S. Army has a suicide rate of 18 per 100,000, and the U.S. Marine Corps (which has the highest rate in the U.S. Armed Services) has a rate of 24 per 100,000.

“Living on base, the discipline is very harsh. Plus there’s the added stress of overseas deployments,” said one senior officer commenting on the suicides. According to the officer, there are also cases of superior officers using the armed services’ strict code of obedience to bully subordinates. This was the case in 1999, when a 21-year-old sailor on the MSDF escort vessel Sawagiri hung himself. The deceased man’s family blamed the conduct of his superiors for his death, and won 3.5 million yen in compensation in a suit filed against the government.

Considering that for the better part of a decade a quarter of the U.S. Army was in Iraq and Afghanistan engaging in actual combat and yet has a 45% lower suicide rate than the SDF, the excuse that “overseas deployments” are responsible for suicides seems weak.

Oddly enough, what I take away from writing this article is that a Japanese civilian is as likely to commit suicide as a U.S. Marine who has probably seen at least one combat deployment overseas.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 536 post(s) on Japan Security Watch