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Will Blue Lights Reduce Suicides in Japan?

Posted by: Kenji Hall on November 05, 2009

The color blue has been thought to have a calming effect on people. But can it prevent suicides? Railway operator JR East is hoping that blue light-emitting-diode, or LED, lamps will help reduce the number of suicides on train tracks. Last month, the company spent $170,000 to put the lamps on the platforms of all 29 stations along the Yamanote line, said East Japan Railway spokesman Koji Takano. Among the dozens of commuter train and subway lines that crisscross Tokyo, the Yamanote, which travels in a loop around the city, is one of the busiest.

Experts say there’s no conclusive evidence that blue lights will do any good. “Train operators are desperate to do anything that will bring down the number of suicides,” said Tsuneo Suzuki, a professor who specializes in color psychology at Keio University in Tokyo. “But there’s no research that proves that blue lights will dissuade people from killing themselves.”

Suicides are a common cause of disruption for Japan’s railway operators. Last year, Japan recorded 32,249 suicides, a 2.6% fall from the previous year, according to National Police Agency statistics. Of the total, close to 2,000 people, or roughly 6%, had killed themselves by jumping in front of a train. Last year’s figures were well below the record high of 34,427 set in 2003. So far this year, amid a recession and unemployment that’s hovering near record highs, suicides appear to be on the rise again, with 24,846 reported through September.

On East Japan Railway’s lines in Tokyo, suicides rose for the third straight year to 68 in the fiscal year through March—18 of them on the Yamanote line—from 58 the previous year. Company spokesman Koji Takano said the decision to use blue LED lights wasn’t based on any researchers’ specific findings.

In recent years, cities and railways operators have experimented with colored lights. In one highly publicized case, authorities in Glasgow, Scotland, put up blue lights in parts of the city, and later pointed to anecdotal evidence that crime had fallen. Last year, Japan’s Keihin Electric Express Railway set up blue lights inside a station in Yokohama, just west of Tokyo. Other train operators have set up blue lights at railroad crossings.

Recently, officials from Tokyo-based private railway company Tokyu recently paid Keio University’s Suzuki a visit to seek his advice about the psychological effect of colored lights. Forget about it, he said, not least because the lights would be switched off during the daylight hours. “I told them that I understood their concerns but that they won’t solve a deeply rooted societal problem like suicide by putting up lights,” he recalled. “If you showed that it was possible, you would probably win the Nobel Prize.”

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Reader Comments


November 5, 2009 10:18 AM

The real problem is that suicide is socially acceptable in Japaneese culture. The best outcome you can get would be to emphasize that only suicide by sword is honorable. Judeo-Christian culture says that people who kill themselves will suffer eternal punishment, so Westerners don't kill themselves as often.

Esayas Gebremariam

November 5, 2009 02:21 PM

wow, I didn't know that sucide is a big problem in Japan as to desperately apply blue light.I think, the stereotype about them is true , Japanese work so hard that they don't have time for their family , to have fun and etc.It seems their technical superiority is costing them some price.


November 8, 2009 08:36 AM

Let's address the illusion first.

Japanese work so hard because they are so inefficient. Wasting all day in meaningless meetings which prevents any work actually being done.

Also incompetent screaming managers demanding results or expecting them to kill themselves to save having to pay for their worthless existence. Managers that push people down stairs and kick them in the face. Mentioning no names, ELLE JAPAN, this means you.

Even you, dear reader, would become suicidally depressed if you had to work in such a screaming shop of incompetence as Elle Japan. And, sadly, that is not an unusual case.

Stations would benefit with grisly photos of previous suicides with "This could be you". Won't happen. Hey, let's try pretty blue lights instead! Next it will be Hello Kitty urging would be suicides to think pink.

Wai L. Chui

November 11, 2009 01:43 PM

How much do glass walls cost? Like those installed in the subway stations.


November 17, 2009 11:36 AM

installing fences are a huge pain and is a much bigger project than jus instaling lights so in the long run this might be all that can be done right now

Andrew Grimes JFP, JSCCP, M.Sci. Pth

November 21, 2009 10:48 PM

Western media reports on suicide and mental health care in Japan rarely get it right. I am a psychologist and psychotherapist working in Japan for over 20 years and so like all of my colleagues in the mental health care field here share with them the view that copycat suicides have a lot more to do with press and media copy than western misconceptions about relatively more group oriented societies in Asia.

I would like to put forward a perspective on the realsome of the main reasons behind the unacceptably high suicide Japan from Japan and so will limit my comments to what I know about here in Japan but would first like to suggest that western media reports on suicide rates in Asian countries should try harder to get away from the tendency to orientalize the serious and preventable problem of increased suicide rates here over the last 10 years by reverting to stereotypical ideas of Asian people in general. People here do not wake up one day and say, "Hey, let's commit suicide today because I hear it is all the rage in Shanghai and Tokyo and the word is that even the Changs and Suzukis are doing it!" In other words Asians are real people too and not lemmings and it is more than every before the time the world wide media puts aside its mystical cliches, anciently outdated and jaded misconceptions on the hundreds of thousands of men and women who take their own lives every year in Japan and other countries throughout Asia.

Mental health professionals in Japan have long known that the reason for the unnecessarily high suicide rate in Japan is due to unemployment, bankruptcies, and the increasing levels of stress on businessmen and other salaried workers who have suffered enormous hardship in Japan since the bursting of the stock market bubble here that peaked around 1997. Until that year Japan had an annual suicide of rate figures between 22,000 and 24,000 each year. Following the bursting of the stock market and the long term economic downturn that has followed here since the suicide rate in 1998 increased by around 35% and since 1998 the number of people killing themselves each year in Japan has consistently remained well over 30,000 each and every year to the present day.

The current worldwide recession is of course impacting Japan too, so unless very proactive and well funded local and nation wide suicide prevention programs and initiatives are immediately it is very difficult to foresee the governments previously stated intention to reduce the suicide rate to around 23,000 by the year 2016 being achievable. On the contrary the numbers, and the human suffering and the depression and misery that the people who become part of these numbers, have to endure may well stay at the current levels that have persistently been the case here for the last ten years. It could even get worse unless even more is done to prevent this terrible loss of life.

The current numbers licensed psychiatrists (around 132,000), Japan Society of Certified Clinical Psychologists clinical psychologists (16,732 as of 2007), and Psychiatric Social Workers (39,108 as of 2009) must indeed be increased. In order for professional mental health counseling and psychotherapy services to be covered for depression and other mental illnesses by public health insurance it would seem advisable that positive action is taken to resume and complete the negotiations on how to achieve national licensing for clinical psychologists in Japan through the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and not just the Ministry of Education as is the current situation. These discussions were ongoing between all concerned mental health professional authorities that in the ongoing select committee and ministerial levels that were ongoing during the Koizumi administration. With the current economic recession adding even more hardship and stress in the lives its citizens, now would seem to be a prime opportunity for the responsible Japanese to take a pro-active approach to finally providing government approval for national licensing for clinical psychologists who provide mental health care counseling and psychotherapy services to the people of Japan.

During these last ten years of these relentlessly high annual suicide rate numbers the English media seems in the main to have done little more than have someone goes through the files and do a story on the so-called suicide forest or internet suicide clubs and copycat suicides (whether cheap heating fuel like charcoal briquettes or even cheaper household cleaning chemicals) without focusing on the bigger picture and need for effective action and solutions. Economic hardship, bankruptcies and unemployment have been the main cause of suicide in Japan over the last 10 years, as the well detailed reports behind the suicide rate numbers that have been issued every year until now by the National Police Agency in Japan show only to clearly if any journalist is prepared to learn Japanese or get a bilingual researcher to do the research to get to the real heart of the tragic story of the long term and unnecessarily high suicide rate problem in Japan.

Useful telephone number for Japanese residents of Japan who speak Japanese and are feeling depressed or suicidal: Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline Telephone Service):

Japan: 0120-738-556 Tokyo: 3264 4343

Andrew Grimes

Tokyo Counseling Services

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BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.

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