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Japan grapples with post-tsunami suicides

Kuni Takahashi

Residents of Japan's northeast coast have suffered through three separate but intertwined disasters since a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast on March 11.

TOKYO, Japan – More than 60 people have committed suicides related to last year’s 9.0 quake and tsunami, which triggered meltdowns at a nuclear plant in Fukushima, the Japanese government says.

The data comes as a family prepares to file the first lawsuit against the Tokyo Electric Power Co. over the suicide of Hamako Watanabe, a 58-year-old woman who set herself on fire in wake of the disaster.

In 2011, 55 people committed suicide, with another six cases reported since the beginning of 2012. Suicides linked to the Fukushima nuclear accident are included in the numbers, but attribution to the nuclear crisis has been omitted due to privacy concerns. The data was collected using local police reports since last June.

“We are collecting this information and making it available within the boundary of the victims' privacy to help their work and research," said Ryoko Hagiwara, of the Cabinet Office’s suicide prevention task force. "Unless we understand the actual situation, we cannot come up with any countermeasures." 

The victims' age, gender and occupation vary. The causes for the suicides include financial, health and family-related troubles. 

Watanabe’s family will seek $910,000 in damages in the death of Hamako Watanabe from TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant, according to The Japan Times and The Mainichi. They plan to file the lawsuit – which would be the first over a suicide linked to the nuclear crisis – on May 18 in Fukushima District Court.

Family to sue over suicide after Japan tsunami, nuke meltdown

Her husband, Mikio Watanabe, 61, said his wife suffered depression in the aftermath of the March 11 disaster.

The couple lived about 25 miles from the Fukushima power plant and their home had been designated as being within a planned evacuation zone. She killed herself at a garbage incinerator after going back to clean the house in Kawamata, The Japan Times reported.  

The couple had moved around after the 9.0 quake and ensuing tsunamis struck, triggering meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and leaving nearly 16,000 dead.

As of last Saturday, Japan had shut down the last of its 50 usable nuclear reactors amid strong opposition from the public and local governments to keeping them up and running, The Associated Press reported.

Hamako Watanabe had been a poultry worker until her workplace was shuttered after the tsunami, and she began to show signs of insomnia and had a poor appetite.

A group of lawyers representing victims of the nuclear crisis said her depression and suicide were due to the nuclear disaster, The Mainichi reported.

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Tepco declined to make comment to the newspapers, though the family notified the utility on April 20 of its intention to file the lawsuit. Tepco said in a letter dated May 1 that it would consider the matter.

The government earmarked $46 million after the quake and tsunami for local governments to spend on suicide prevention efforts.