Japan's Cabinet OKs suicide prevention measures

The Cabinet took aim at Japan's alarming suicide rate Friday, approving measures to tackle unemployment, boost workplace counseling and filter Internet sites that promote suicide, just weeks after a farm minister took his own life.

The package of measures comes a day after a new police report showed the number of suicides in Japan topped 30,000 for a ninth straight year in 2006.

Japan's suicide rate is among the highest in the industrialized world. Suicides passed the 30,000 mark in 1998, when a long economic slump forced massive corporate restructuring that left many people bankrupt or jobless, driving many men in their 40s and 50s to take their own lives.

This year, the country was shocked by the May 28 suicide of Farm Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, found hanged in his room just before he was to face questioning in parliament over government scandals.

The latest suicide prevention measures are based on a law enacted last October to bolster suicide prevention, after the sense of crisis had been heightened by the increasing incidence of group suicides arranged among strangers over the Internet.

In previous years, the government took steps that proved unsuccessful.

A total of 32,155 Japanese took their own lives in 2006, down 1.2 percent from the year before, according to the latest National Police Agency statistics released Thursday. Among them were a record total of 886 students - the highest figure since the agency started taking statistics in 1978.

The new measures, drafted by a government-appointed panel of experts in April and approved by the Cabinet on Friday, aims to cut suicides by 20 percent by 2016 to around 25,000 a year, the Cabinet Office said in a statement.

The measures call for comprehensive efforts, including stepping up measures to tackle unemployment and bankruptcy, as well as early detection and treatment of depression.

The measures include mental health support services such as counseling at workplaces, a network of community psychiatrists, and public campaigns to raise awareness of the problem and to reduce prejudice against mental illnesses.

They also call for more support for suicide survivors and victims' families. Students and the elderly were the two groups that had the fastest-growing suicide rates.

Most of the measures are to be funded by the government, though the Cabinet did not release figures on how much money was available.

Nearly half of those who committed suicide last year were unemployed, the police said in their report published Thursday.

The measures approved Friday also call for financial support for efforts to develop software to filter Web sites promoting group suicides and beef up telephone hotline services for distressed youths.

The measures come just weeks after the suicide of Japan's farm minister shocked the nation.

Toshikatsu Matsuoka, 62, hanged himself in his apartment in late May just before he was to face questioning in the country's parliament over a series of scandals that have rocked the government since he took office last September.

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