TOKYO, Feb 25, 2009 (AFP) - As the worsening global recession squeezes the Japanese economy, experts fear more people could be driven to take their lives in a country already notorious for one of the world's highest suicide rates.
"In the current situation the number of suicides will rise, likely toward the end of the fiscal year," said Yasuyuki Shimizu of Tokyo-based non-profit group Life Link, which supports relatives of suicides.
"We are afraid of a serious crisis," he said, adding: "The crisis may have already begun."
Shimizu said he feared a repeat of 1998, when the number of suicides topped 30,000 for the first time as Japan suffered the worst of its economic "lost decade" of the 1990s and tens of thousands of people lost their jobs.
Since 1998, more than 30,000 people have killed themselves each year, putting Japan behind only a handful of countries of the former Soviet bloc in suicide rates, according to the World Health Organisation.
Japanese authorities must prepare for the end of fiscal year 2008 in March, when many battered companies may adjust staff numbers and sack workers, Shimizu said.
Last year is expected to be the 11th consecutive year in which suicides have officially surpassed 30,000.
Ahead of new police data due to be released in June, public broadcaster NHK reported this week that at least 32,194 people had killed themselves last year, warning the toll may rise as more deaths are found to have been suicides.
In the first months of 2009, more bad economic news has hit.
Last week the government warned that Japan is now in the deepest economic crisis since World War II, after Asia's biggest economy suffered its worst contraction in almost 35 years.
On Wednesday, official figures showed the country had logged a record trade deficit in January as exports suffered their steepest ever fall due to the global economic crisis.
Many analysts predict the downturn could be even deeper than the 1990s slump that came after Japan's 'bubble economy' had burst.
A decade on, the economic crisis has directly hit individual contract workers who supported "Japan Corp" as cheap and highly mobile labour.
Leading carmakers and electronics manufacturers have in the past six months laid off tens of thousands of mostly temporary workers -- leaving them without corporate housing or the social relations at the workplace, Shimizu said.
Japan's labour ministry has estimated at least 125,000 temporary contract workers have lost or will lose their jobs by March.
In a sign of the times, the western city of Suita said it recently received 2,782 applications after advertising just five office jobs, with almost one third of the job-seekers aged 40 or older.
A Tokyo-based lawyers' group that helps heavily indebted people said it received 7,703 calls on its suicide hotline in the two years to January.
Of those calls, 57 were from the edge of the Aokigahara forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, a notorious suicide spot where many people have killed themselves with drugs or by hanging over the years.
The lawyers' group has erected signs in the forest, urging those tired of life to reconsider and make a last-minute phone call for help.
"Many people who try to commit suicide suffer depression," said Yuzo Kato, director of the non-profit Tokyo Suicide Prevention Centre.
"Japanese people have the tendency to feel guilty if they stop and take a break.
"Especially under the global economic downturn, people don't see many positive signs," he said. "This is a critical situation."