By Elaine Lies
TOKYO, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Suicides in Japan in 2019 fell to their lowest number in more than 40 years, police said on Friday, marking the 10th straight year of declines.
Though suicide has a long history in Japan as a way of avoiding shame or dishonor, and its suicide rate still tops the Group of Seven nations, a national effort has brought Japanese suicides down by about 40 percent in roughly 15 years.
The number of suicides in 2019 fell by 881 people, bringing the overall number under 20,000 for the first time since record-keeping began in 1978, according to preliminary police data published Friday.
The suicide rate edged down to 15.8 people per 100,000, a dip of 0.7. By contrast, the suicide rate in the United States, with more than twice Japan's population, was 14 per 100,000 in 2017, the latest year for which data was available - although suicide is a growing problem there.
By gender, 13,937 men and 6,022 women took their lives. There was no breakdown by age group.
Japanese suicides peaked at 34,427 in 2003, alarming policy makers and drawing foreign attention.
Though the police did not give any reason for the decline, and an improving economy has undoubtedly helped, and a 2007 suicide prevention programme tweaked in 2016 to allow for regional differences is apparently bearing fruit.
Increased psychological services, a growing number of hotlines, and other volunteer outreach groups that help people express their innermost feelings have all played a role.
Corporations, prompted by lawsuits from families of those who kill themselves because of overwork, have made it easier to take leave, with more offering psychological support. A law caps overtime, and the government mandates annual stress tests in companies with over 50 employees. (Reporting by Elaine Lies. Editing by Gerry Doyle)