December 18, 2009

JAPAN: At Japanese Cliffs, a Campaign to Combat Suicide

. HENDERSONVILLE, North Carolina / / December 18, 2009 By Martin Fackler SAKAI, Japan — The towering cliffs of Tojimbo, with their sheer drops into the raging, green Sea of Japan, are a top tourist destination, but Yukio Shige had no interest in the rugged scenery. Instead, he walked along the rocky crags searching for something else: a lone human figure, usually sitting hunched at the edge of the precipice. That is one of the telltale signs in people drawn here by Tojimbo’s other, less glorious, distinction as one of the best known places to kill oneself in Japan, one of the world’s most suicide-prone nations. Mr. Shige, a 65-year-old former policeman, has spent his five years since retirement on a mission to stop those who come here from jumping. His efforts have helped draw attention to the grim fact that Japan’s suicide rate is again on the rise. Police figures show that the number of suicides this year could approach the country’s record high of 34,427, reached in 2003, almost 95 suicides a day. Yukio Shige, a 65-year-old former policeman, has spend his five years since retirement on a mission to stop those who go to the cliffs of Tojimbo from jumping. Torin Boyd/Polaris for The New York Times Mr. Shige and a group of volunteers he put together have saved 222 people so far, a tally that has made Mr. Shige a national figure in a country that often seems apathetic about its high rate of self-destruction. But he has also met with criticism from a conformist society that can look dimly on people who draw attention by engaging in activism, even of the most humanitarian kind. “In Japan, we say the nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” said Mr. Shige, who says he started the patrols after he grew angry at inaction by local authorities. “But I’ll keep sticking up. I tell them, hit me if you can!” In part, public health experts blame Japan’s romanticized image of suicide as an honorable escape, going back to ritual self-disembowelment by medieval samurai, for the high suicide rate. But the main cause, they say, is the nation’s long economic decline. Suicides first surged to their recent high levels in 1998, when traditional lifetime employment guarantees began to vanish, and they have remained high as salaries and job security continued to erode. The situation has worsened during the recent global financial crisis, which is driving this year’s increase, experts say. While Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, in his first policy speech in October, referred to Japan’s suicide rate in calling for “mutual support” among Japanese, experts say the government’s limited steps to deal with suicide have made little difference. While preventing suicides is a universally difficult task, it is particularly challenging in Japan. Depression remains a taboo topic here, making it hard for those most at risk to seek the help of family and friends. Many Japanese view suicide as an issue of private choice rather than public health, and there are few efforts to highlight the problem. “Americans raise awareness with grass-roots action, but Japanese just wait for the government to take care of them,” said Yoshitomo Takahashi, a professor of behavioral science who researches suicide at the National Defense Medical College in Tokorozawa, Japan. Officials in Sakai, the small city in Fukui Prefecture, where Tojimbo is located, have installed outdoor lighting at the cliffs along with two pay phones and plenty of the 10-yen coins needed to dial up the national suicide hot line. Nevertheless, city officials call this the grimmest year on record, with the police saying they know of more than 140 people who came here intending to commit suicide, twice the average in recent years. Most of them were stopped by the police or nearby tourists, or decided not to jump for other reasons, the police say. The police figure does not include the 54 people this year whom Mr. Shige says he and his group have stopped. City officials credit Mr. Shige with helping keep the number of deaths here down to 13 so far this year, about the same as the 15 suicides last year. Mr. Shige says his approach to stopping suicides is quite simple: when he finds a likely person, he walks up and gently begins a conversation. The person, usually a man, quickly breaks down in tears, happy to find someone to listen to his problems. “They are just sitting there, alone, hoping someone will talk to them,” Mr. Shige said. As an officer stationed at Tojimbo at the end of his 42-year career, he said he was appalled by all the bodies he had to pluck out of the sea. He said he once stopped an elderly couple from Tokyo from jumping and turned them over to city officials who he said gave them money and told them to buy a ticket to the next town. Days later he received a letter from the couple, mailed just before they committed suicide in a neighboring prefecture. “The authorities’ coldness outraged me,” said Mr. Shige, whose cellphone rings to the tune of “Amazing Grace,” though he is not religious. He now has 77 volunteers patrolling the cliffs and providing food, lodging and assistance in finding work to those it helps. He said they tried to patrol two or three times a day. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Shige checked three of the most popular sites for jumpers — all with drops of at least 70 feet. He said the loners were easy to spot because most visitors moved in groups behind flag-waving guides. Speaking through bullhorns, the guides loudly describe the morbid fame of the cliffs, which were named for an evil Buddhist monk who was said to have fallen to his death there. One of those whom Mr. Shige stopped was Yutaka Yamaoka, 29, a factory worker who tried to commit suicide last year after being laid off. Mr. Yamaoka visited Mr. Shige’s tiny office by the cliffs on a recent day to thank him and tell him that he had found a job. When Mr. Shige found him last year, Mr. Yamaoka said, he was sitting silently near the cliffs clutching his knees. He said Mr. Shige spoke with him for two hours, then allowed him to stay in an apartment rent free for a month until he felt better. “I felt saved. I felt I could live,” recalled Mr. Yamaoka, who spoke haltingly in a barely audible voice. “My feelings of panic and unease just built up. I had no one to talk with.” Mr. Shige’s efforts have stirred local resentment, particularly from a local tourist association that says his activities are bad for business. But Mr. Shige is not easily deterred. “I will continue until the government finally gets its act together and takes over,” he said. “I can’t let their inaction cost another precious life.” [rc] Copyright © 2009