Wolf Richter: How Americans Stack Up In Dying From Violence, War, Suicide, And Accidents

Yves here. One thing worth noting regarding the high suicide rate in Japan: first, it has always been high. Suicide is romanticized in Japan. I had a Japanese subordinate at Sumitomo instruct me on the proper technique for seppuku (probably hoping I’d give it a whirl, I eventually made his life miserable enough that he resigned from my department). The honor lies not in slicing open your stomach, I was told, but in twisting the knife at the end and making a final upward yank through the liver (assuming you are right-handed, of course, not sure if the mirror image move was less esteemed). Even so, bad economic times also kill: the suicide rate in Japan has increased from between 16 and 19 per hundred thousand to 24 per hundred thousand plus in the new millennium, meaning, depend on what you choose as the base year, suicides have risen by anywhere from roughly 25% to 50%. And the increase has been almost entirely in male suicides.

The second is that Wolf points to the high accident rate in the US. That unquestionably includes some suicides. Some suicides are reported as accidents to save the family stigma or because the person who died went to some length to have it look like an accident so that his survivors would still be able to get a payout on life insurance.

By Wolf Richter, San Francisco based executive, entrepreneur, start up specialist, and author, with extensive international work experience. Cross posted from Testosterone Pit.

Now some new fodder for the gun-control debate that the horrid events in Connecticut suddenly stirred into a frenzy, though it had been snoozing through the daily drumbeat of murders in Oakland, CA, a few miles across the Bay from me, or in Richmond to the north, or really in any other city. The fodder is inconvenient, however. For both sides of the debate.

The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council released a troubling book-length report, U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health, that dug deeply into various studies and statistics of mortality for the year 2008, and came up with some uncomfortable conclusions—uncomfortable particularly if you’re male and under fifty: not only do Americans live less long than their counterparts in the developed world, but much of the damage happens at a younger age (more of that in the next post).

So the first thing I did was check out the category “deaths from intentional injuries” and its three subcategories, “self-inflicted injuries,” “war,” and “violence.” Grisly statistics, all of them.

As expected, the US has the most violence among the 17 “peer” countries in the study with 6.5 deaths per 100,000. Almost three times the rate of Finland, the next most violent country in the group with 2.2 deaths per 100,000 people, and over 15 times the rate of Japan with 0.43 deaths per 100,000 people. The third most violent country, Canada (1.6), is practically a bastion of safety for those Americans who make it across the border.

The apparently permanent element of US foreign policy, “war,” killed 0.44 Americans per 100,000 in 2008. It killed a lot fewer people in the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and France, and none in the remaining peer countries.

Deaths from self-inflicted injuries are an immense cultural tragedy in Japan—and its literature is replete with it. But the Japanese rate of 19.8 suicides per 100,000 people is not that much worse than that of the Finns (17.7). Americans are in the middle of the pack (10.3). The least suicidal are the Italians (4.5).

Combine the deaths from all intentional injuries—violence, war, and suicide—and the leader of the pack is … drumroll … Japan! With 20.2 deaths per 100,000 it is a hair deadlier than Finland (19.9), somewhat deadlier than the US in third place (17.3), but 3.6 times deadlier than the country of the Mafia, Italy, where people are least likely to die of intentional injuries (5.6).

The inconvenient part? Legally owning firearms in Japan is nearly impossible, and few people own them, legally or otherwise. The Japanese commit suicide by other means. And if the Japanese had more violent tendencies toward each other, they’d kill each other at a higher rate by other means, and they’d break the laws more often to own guns to use them against each other. But they don’t.

It’s not the absence of guns that makes the streets of Japan a safer place; it’s the outright refusal of practically all modern Japanese to resort to violence toward each other (they do have murderers or terrorists, just very, very few of them). In America, that attitude isn’t that common. Hence the scourge of violence.

Then there is the category of deaths from “unintentional injuries,” such as traffic accidents, poisonings, falls, fires, or drownings. Every country has its own nightmare, but overall, Finland is the most dangerous place with 38.6 deaths per 100,000. The US is in second place (35.5). The least dangerous? Japan (16.1), Germany (15.4), and the Netherlands (13.7).

Among deaths from unintentional injuries, traffic accidents are still the big killer in America—though the numbers have been cut in half since the 1970s. With 13.9 deaths per 100,000 people, America is significantly more dangerous than next-in-line Portugal (10.0) and 3.6 times more dangerous than Japan (3.8), the safest in the group. Of course, the US is a huge country where a lot of people drive a lot of miles on a daily basis. In Japan, most people—even those who own cars—rely on the vast and gleaming public transportation network to commute or get around, though the traffic on Tokyo’s expressways and the congestion in the streets might tempt you to think otherwise.

Poisonings—unintentional ones, that is!—kill Finns at a rate of 13.9 per 100,000 on par with traffic deaths in the US! Do they eat paint for breakfast? The US is next in line (8.9). By contrast, in Austria almost no one dies of poisoning (0.18). And Finns are just as likely to die from falls (13.9) than from poisoning, with the US (8.9) in second place, while France leads in the big catch-all category, other unintentional injuries (9.3).

The hapless leaders in total deaths from all injuries, intentional and unintentional, are Japan (36.3), France (38.2), then a big jump to the US (52.8), and another jump to number one, Finland (58.5). Deaths from traffic accidents, violence, war, and suicide are more common in the younger years (under 50). One of the clues why much of the damage to Americans’ low life expectancy comes early in life. Another clue is healthcare. More on that in my next post.

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  1. Ruben

    Interesting article and book linked.
    “Poisonings—unintentional ones, that is!—kill Finns at a rate of 13.9 per 100,000 on par with traffic deaths in the US! Do they eat paint for breakfast?”
    Most likely the poisoning is alcoholic intoxication (and the falls as well). Finland (and Norway, Sweeden) has a special relation with alcoholic beverages, due to a very long period of prohibition and State control of alcoholic beverages production. Due to joining the EU it came a new period of liberalisation in alcohol production and pricing.

  2. Gerard Pierce

    It is a difference culture but it is not less violent. The Japanse often damage and kill each other through their class system, not through explicit violence.

    Check the movie Harakirki (the 1962 version) a story of the breakup of the samuri clans (set in 1830) due to actions of the Shogun.

    This was a story of devastation (and suicide) in Japan of the time – paradoxically caused by peace and the unemployment peace created amoong the Samuri class.

    The movie is a powerful drama of one unemplouyed Samuri family, destroyed by illness and starvation, and by the indifference and malice of those higher in the hierarchy than they were.

    That’s a poor description of an excellent drama, but that’s the best I can do for now.

    After seing the movie I though that a new release should be filmed – one more in tune with todays reality. A new Japanese version was released last year, but was apparently not very good.

    Making a cross-cultural translation would be very difficult because the Japanes attitudes to seppuku do not really translate to a United States drama.

    There is probably an increase in suicides in the US due to current economics, but here it’s not considered an honorable way of checking our when all else fails.

    But the attitudes of the upper class in the movie would translate almost perfectly to the attitudes of our current day lords and masters.

  3. bmeisen

    “…self-inflicted injuries are an immense cultural tragedy in Japan.”

    Your cross-national/cross-cultural comparison is much appreciated.

    I have an issue with your use of “tragedy”. Durkheim showed that suicide is culturally determined. What we often consider a purely individual decision – the decision to take one’s life, to cheat God – is in fact a function not of the individual but of the individual’s cultural background. This is especially hard to take for those of us who live in highly “individualistic” cultures. It illuminates the extent to which a cultural program of individualism is a deceit, one which I suggest is especially vulnerable to manipulation by ruling elites.

    Can suicide be tragic if it is a culturally determined phenomenon? As I recall tragedy emerges when the hero refuses to heed the chorus’ warnings. In Japan the chorus is singing “Remember to pull the blade upwards when you get over to the right side.”

    1. anonnow

      So if an American decides to kill themselves is it culturally determined? I’ve sometimes had suicidal thoughts (though maybe everyone gets these at times?).

      I mean American culture leaves a *lot* to be desired, life basically sucks here, but I’m not sure that when I get real down living in utopia itself could change my mind in wishing I was dead. Still I obviously haven’t done it, so maybe I don’t live in all that suicidal a culture at all, maybe if I was Japanese I wouldn’t be around to be writing this.

  4. Aussie F

    Speculation is that seasonal affective disorder might be responsible for the Finn/Swedish suicide rate. It’s a long cold, dark winter at those high northern latitudes.
    Here in old Blighty the stigma around suicide has reduced substantially, largely as result of ‘right to die’ agitation.

    It’s very hard to blame Americans for checking out prematurely. Social conditions are pretty appalling for millions of people. If life’s an intolerable burden of endless labour, sickness and misery why prolong it? If it’s any consolation we’re only a few years behind the curve in europe, and the rush to oblivion is likley to pick up steam rapidly.

    1. Tim

      Yeah, SAD has to be a leading cause of suicides in Northern/cloudy climates. Even Japan’s climate over a fair percentage of the contry’s population isn’t that great and SAD could be contributing.

      I lived in Seattle with SAD for two years. It almost killed me off too. You never feel completely awake during the day and at night you never can be fully asleep.

  5. Simon

    Interesting read…..

    What does not seem evident from the article (and I have to confess that I did not go to the source doc – so maybe it is there) is that to talk of deaths per 100,000 masks sub-groups where the rate would be significantly higher (or lower). I imagine that risk of death by violence of farmers in the mid west is not the same as for some drug-dealing gang banger in an inner city slum. The assumption then is of a homogeneity which I dont believe exists, and further, prevents a debate about ‘ground level’ issues which are probably more of an influence than simply being ‘American’ (or Japanese).


  6. Wells Fargo Must Die

    I’d say the abscense of guns makes Japan’s streets are far safer place. It is simply much harder to kill someone by any other means. People will still do it but in far fewer numbers.

    America does have and has always had a culture of violence and have always glorified murder and shoot ’em ups. While we claim to be repulsed by incidents such as Columbine, Connecticut and the Colorado movie massacre, we roll in them like a dog in stink. Watching everything we can and making millions off of it.

  7. John & yoko in your head

    Re the endemic US violence disease, the civilized world is on the case. The Culture of Peace Programme is a good example of international capacity-building intervention. It’s at work in our third-world basket case USA. The Culture of Peace was deftly slipped into OWS, but in a very low-key way to avoid panicking the NEWWORLDORDEr666!!!1! rubes. US satellites fight the program tooth and nail because it harshes their culture of war. Any whiff of it’s enormously subversive here, where every rent-a-cop thinks he’s a Homeland counter-terror hero.

  8. Stan Musical

    “the vast and gleaming public transportation network to commute or get around”

    Obviously this writer has very little actual in experience in Japan; I’ve spent years and years riding the Japanese rails (mostly the same routes to and from work but I’ve been all over Tokyo as I lived there for a number of years).

    Vast, yes, but gleaming? Ha! Even most of the Shinkansen trains are showing their age (though the new ones are indeed slick). Private railways have mostly pretty new cars, but a) they’re almost always very crowded so getting a seat is far from certain and b) Shinkansen aside all of Japan’s trains run on narrow-guage tracks (there’s an interesting historical reason for it but no space for that here), so the cars are narrow, thus more crowded, and they sway quite a bit.

    JR trains are mostly–or at least appear to be–60’s/70’s era. Hardly gleaming.

    That quibble aside, what always strikes me returning to the US after being for months in Japan is the huge social difference between riding together with others in a train (especially when putting up with the over-crowding–try a JR train in Tokyo during rush hour….actually, no, don’t) and competing against others on the streets and highways in the US. There’s a PhD thesis waiting to be written on that if it hasn’t already been.

    1. Tim

      I hone my skills as a stock trader by trying to get ahead in rush hour traffic on multilane freeways (I treat each lane is a different potential investment). There is a lot of parallels there too.

  9. Jesse

    I think some detail is missing in your preamble Yves, otherwise it is a bit odd reading you brag about making someone quit.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You never met Yuji Kato or dealt with the intrigues of a Japanese bank (and Sumitomo was famous in Japan for being particularly ruthless internally).

      He was assigned to me and thought his job was to spy on me, rat me out to everyone in the bank who hated my guts, and not do anything I wanted him to do. So I finally had to act like a normal asshole manager: giving him very specific tasks and deadlines and getting after him when he didn’t do them.

      Getting him out of my department was a major accomplishment. When I told one of my clients, who had had some dealings with Kato, that Kato had quit and that I would get to hire a replacement, he said,

      “You have to set your standards higher than that. A replacement for Kato is a chair, or maybe livestock.”

  10. Cardiff Giant

    I know the study only looks at deaths per 100,000 but if you look at violent crime overall (resulting in death and injury) the U.K. has a rate of 2000 per 100,000 far exceeding the U.S. rate of over 400 per 100,000. These numbers are from 2008.

  11. Larry Barber

    Actually, crossing the border into Canada won’t make you a lot safer since you would have to be in a northern state before you cross. The northern tier of states have very Canada-like violence and murder rates. The best thing an American can do if he wants to be safer from crime and violence is to get out of the South if that’s where he lives. Southern crime and violence rates are very third-worldish, the rate of violence drops dramatically as you go north.

  12. Roland

    Finland has the highest rate of gun ownership in Europe. They are supposedly also prodigious drinkers.

    But come to think of it, don’t the Japanese do a lot of drinking, too? I’ve never been there, but I’m told it’s the custom for people to go out drinking with their colleagues after work.

    In Canada, the most violent places are in the North, in Alberta, and in the interior regions of British Columbia. Lots of intoxication, lots of weapons, lots of transients, impoverished aborignals, and a boom/bust economy. As you get further from the US border, Canada gets more and more like everyone’s stereotype of the US.

    However, with its usual insensitivity to local culture, the Cdn. gov’t unfortunately forbade us from racking our rifles in the back window of our pickup trucks.

  13. kareninca

    Does the fact that 45 percent of African American pregnancies end in abortion (per the CDC) count as violence?

    I’m pro-choice, but killing off nearly half of an ethnic group, before birth, has to fit into a violence/death article somewhere.

  14. Shane536

    Re Suicide in Japan.

    Firstly, don`t believe the hype. Secondly, follow the money. The incidence of suicide in Japan is influenced by a variety of factors. Yes, it is certainly more culturally accepted here. Just look at the rush to ascribe “Suicide” as the cause of death in the case of X-Japan guitarist Hide by is record compeny, and “Death by misadventure” in the case of INXS (Australia) singer Michael Hutchence, when they both died in exactly the same way. In a hotel room with their pants down hanging from a noose from a doorhandle. After death record sales would have been greatly lowered had he died in what was clearly a wanking accident.

    However, the fact remains, that suicide stats in Japan are greatly influenced by economic factors, mainly insurance.

    Two facts:
    1: You can insure someone else`s life, without their knowledge, and without being related to them and receive a payout upon their death.
    2: You still get the payout even if they commit suicide.

    “In Japan, life insurance policies pay for suicides after the suicide exemption period expires. According to one media report,a major life insurance company’s payment due to suicide increased by 50% from 1995 to 2004, and 10% of its total insurance payment went to deaths related to suicides.”


    You can, if you are a sleaze-bag money lender, take out a policy on a deadbeat client and hound them into suicide. Easy. This happens all the time. Hell, you can take out a policy on your depressed mailman. Also, once the economic benefits of being dead outweigh those of being alive, suicide looks a lot more attractive. Laid-off? Heavily in debt? What if you knew your family would get half a million dollars if you topped yourself?

    The next set of economic factors are this:

    Once you are dead, they don`t WANT to know what caused it. “Suicide” is a nice clean finish for everyone. You get your life insurance. The death has no stigma. Combine this with the secret-life-insurance payouts and don`t you think a huge number of murders are quickly labeled suicide? Basically, unless the cops find you standing over a corpse holding a bloody knife, “suicide” is how they label it. Autopsies are simply not performed here.


    Even when they are clearly warranted:

    “Several years ago, two former sumo wrestlers came forward with extensive allegations of match rigging–and more. Aside from the crooked matches, they said, sumo was rife with drug use and sexcapades, bribes and tax evasion, and close ties to the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. The two men began to receive threatening phone calls; one of them told friends he was afraid he would be killed by the yakuza. Still, they went forward with plans to hold a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo. But shortly beforehand, the two men died–hours apart, in the same hospital, of a similar respiratory ailment. The police declared there had been no foul play but did not conduct an investigation. “It seems very strange for these two people to die on the same day at the same hospital,” said Mitsuru Miyake, the editor of a sumo magazine. “But no one has seen them poisoned, so you can’t prove the skepticism.”


    This woman (who worked in the insurance industry) had been poisoning people for decades ffr the insurance payments before they finally got her. She poisoned a couple of her early husbands, the mailman, a few neighbours……

    Simply put, “suicide” is a very convenient label for everyone in Japan. Family, victim, cops, society……It allows them to get their money, allows the cops to claim they solve all the crimes (they “solve” 95% of all “murders” here….), society (Japan is “safe”…)…..

    As I said, follow the money.

    1. kareninca

      Wow. I knew from other stuff I’ve read that Japan is a truly sick society, but this is the icing on the cake. Wow.

  15. Timothy Gawne

    An intriguing post, as usual.

    Let;s get back to basics.

    The murder rate in the US is indeed much high than in gin-controlled Japan. But is is one-fourth as high as in gun-controlled Mexico (no Virginia, most guns in Mexico used in crimes do NOT come from the US – an a lot of those that do, were sold legally to the Mexican military and police).

    So gun-controlled Mexico, Guatemala, and Columbia, have high murder rates. Countries like Switzerland, Finland, and Iceland, where private gun ownership is common, do not. What is the link?

    Simple. Countries that are dirt poor, and that have high levels of inequality and low levels social cohesion, have high murder rates. Countries that are prosperous, and that have low levels of social inequality and high levels of social cohesion, have low murder rates. Period.

    Bottom line: this is a perfect topic for naked capitalism. Drive the average person into the dirt, sooner or later bad things happen.

  16. Paula

    Can anyone explain how a national database composed of legally obtained, owned and held guns will help stop gun crime?

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