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Japanese and U.S. forces met Thursday at Camp Zama, Japan, to talk about suicide prevention among U.S. soldiers and Japan Self-Defense Force troops. Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death among Japanese forces, and the Japanese wanted to hear from U.S. Army Japan about the Army's programs to prevent suicides.

Japanese and U.S. forces met Thursday at Camp Zama, Japan, to talk about suicide prevention among U.S. soldiers and Japan Self-Defense Force troops. Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death among Japanese forces, and the Japanese wanted to hear from U.S. Army Japan about the Army's programs to prevent suicides. (Christopher B. Stoltz / S&S)

CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Suicide is the leading cause of death among members of Japan’s military, according to its top medical officer.

It’s a trend that Maj. Gen. Koji Sensaki, the surgeon general for Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Forces, wants to stop.

Japanese troops have medical staff and counselors who can help those who are considering suicide. But a recent survey found that only 3 percent of Japanese troops said they would seek out a counselor for help, according to U.S. and Japanese military officials who met at Camp Zama last week.

To combat that reluctance, Japanese military medical officials are working with the U.S. military in Japan to share ideas about identifying risks and stemming the suicide rate, Sensaki said.

In particular, Sensaki said he is interested in the counseling work that chaplains do among American servicemembers. Japan’s military doesn’t have a similar role, a person who troops can go to in confidence to discuss personal issues.

“We want to know, how do they care for their soldiers?” Sensaki said. “How do they divide the work share?”

Thursday’s meeting was the first of its kind to discuss such a “serious and painful subject” between both countries, according to Maj. Gen. Elbert Perkins, commanding of U.S. Army Japan.

“I believe this is a ground-breaking event here today,” Perkins said as the meeting opened. In 2006, the U.S. Army’s rate was 17.3 suicides per 100,000, an increase over the previous two years, according to the Pentagon’s Web site. This compares to the overall U.S. population rate, for the same age and gender group, of roughly 19 suicides per 100,000 people.

The rate in Japan’s military is more than twice that — 38.6 suicides for every 100,000 from April 2006 to March 2007, according to the Ministry of Defense.

Among its population overall, Japan has the highest rate of suicide among industrialized countries, Sensaki said. In 2006, Japan had 29,887 suicides, or 23.7 per 100,000, according to the Population Survey Report prepared by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in Japan.

Sensaki said that most suicides among Japanese forces occur among noncommissioned officers, mid-ranking enlisted members. He said the stress of military assignments as well as family finances play a role in the high suicide rate.

On Monday, military officials from both countries will meet again to help the Japanese think about implementing more programs and discussions that can stem the suicide rate, according to Boyd and Laurence Hunter, a training instructor with the Army’s Academy of Health Sciences at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.


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