TOKYO - Yuki Saito should have known something was wrong when his dad quietly walked into their steaming home tub that night — they hadn’t taken a bath together in years, although it is the Japanese custom to do so.
The teen felt awkward and got out of there as quickly as he could. It was a decision he would regret forever — the next day, Yuki learned his 47-year-old father had suffered in silence about his business embroiled in massive bad debts and had chosen suicide as the only way out.
Saito’s story — told in a new book with a dozen other children who lost parents to suicide, mostly over money problems — has struck a chord in this nation, where tough times are now a major force driving 31,000 Japanese a year to take their own lives.
The per capita suicide rate in Japan is roughly twice that of the United States. And a recent surge in debt-linked suicides is alarming this nation, battling a long slowdown that has sent unemployment, bankruptcies and bad debts soaring.
In just four months, 60,000 copies have been published of ‘‘I Could Never Say It Was Suicide,’’ compiled by Ashinaga, a nonprofit group that gives financial aid to children who have lost their parents. The book has drawn an outpouring of letters to the publisher and reviews in the media about Japan’s culture of shame over debts and suicide.
‘‘The problem is that people can’t talk about their troubles. My father was like that. He died without telling anybody,’’ said Saito, 22, of his father’s 1994 death.
Economy Minister Heizo Takenaka has called for change in the nation’s lending system that places corporate debt responsibility on the individual, forcing owners of small and medium-size businesses to go personally broke when their businesses fail.
He blamed the system for the high number of debtcaused suicides in Japan, calling it unimaginable in the West, where businesses are allowed to fail yet people make a fresh start on life.
With paychecks shrinking and the jobless rate at a record high, individual bankruptcies in Japan have surged fivefold in the last five years to more than 214,600 in 2002.
The per capita individual bankruptcy rate in the United States is more than three times the Japanese rate, with more than 1.5 million Americans declaring individual bankruptcy last year.
But the bad debt syndrome leads far more easily to individual tragedy, Japan experts say, because of the culture of shame that makes bankruptcy a last resort for many. People plagued by bad debts in Japan are estimated to be as high as 2 million.
‘‘Japanese people feel it’s an obligation to pay back money they’ve borrowed. They’re determined to pay it back even if it kills them,’’ said Shigeki Kanamori, who gives legal advice to people struggling with loans gone sour.
Kanamori and other experts say the ballooning problem of delinquent borrowers has also produced a booming business of illegal lenders, some linked with gangsters, who charge outrageous interest rates — such as 1,800 percent a year, according to police — and hound borrowers with threats to wring payments out of them.
In most cases, the victims are average, honest, hardworking people who usually start borrowing a small amount of money from a legal lender to keep up with bills. Once they miss a payment, they get ensnared into owing more and turn to dubious lenders called ‘‘yami-kin’’ or ‘‘racket lenders’’ — only to find themselves deeper in snowballing debt.
Legal lenders help perpetuate the myth of easy money. Some advertise lavishly on TV, using celebrities and catchy slogans. Even major banks are getting into the act, setting up consumer financing units with top legal lenders called ‘‘sarakin,’’ short for ‘‘salaryman lenders.’’
Lenders can legally charge up to 29 percent interest in Japan, but many exploit people’s ignorance about the law and charge far higher, such as 50 percent over 10 days.
Those who have been tormented by loansharks say the ordeal is nerve -racking, embarrassing, even frightening.
They call every few minutes, sometimes with menacing voices and threatening references about family. They stalk home and office.
Takeo Watanabe, who leads a self-help group in Tokyo for people in debt, says the Japanese must fight back.
Watanabe helps people file papers with a local court that will reduce interest on debts to 18 percent. He is also part of a lobby effort to crack down on illegal lenders.
A 26-year- old man in Watanabe’s group who refused to give his name or occupation for fear of a social backlash said he racked up $34,000 in debts.
‘‘I felt as though I’d never pay any of the money back — like I’d spend it all,’’ he said. ‘‘But I decided to return the money for my future.’’