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Downturn stirs Japan suicide fears

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

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How do you stop Japanese suicides?

Earlier this year the Japanese government released the results of a survey which suggested that one in five men and women in the country had seriously thought of taking their own life.

Retired Japanese policeman and rescuer Yukio Shige
Ex-policeman Yukio Shige spends his time trying to dissuade clifftop jumpers

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialised world. On average around ninety people kill themselves in Japan every day.

In past years the suicide rate peaked each time the country's economy fell into recession.

Now that Japan's government has reported one quarter of negative growth, and signalled it is likely there are more to follow, there are fears of further increases in the number of people taking their own lives.

Many of those who choose to kill themselves go to Tojimbo Cliffs whose stone columns rise 25 metres (82ft) above the Sea of Japan.

Each evening, a retired policeman, Yukio Shige, patrols the cliffs looking for those he thinks might be planning to jump.

People in pain

If he suspects someone is contemplating suicide he approaches them and starts a conversation, hoping to change their mind.

Koji Tsukino, former would-be suicide
When I was in my 20s I tried to kill myself many times
Koji Tsukino

"For a lot of them it's a cry for help," he says.

"They are really hoping someone will stop them before they take their own lives."

Sometimes grown men burst into tears in front of him, he says. "I say to them 'You must be in a lot of pain, tell me what happened'."

He is a volunteer. His group offers help and support to those he saves from the cliff edge.

He has saved around a 150 people who had planned to kill themselves, many more men than women. Often their problems are to do with work.

"Takanori", a young man in his mid-20s who asked not to have his real name used, is one of them.

A few months ago he came to the cliffs intending to throw himself into the sea after losing his job.

Standing on the cliff edge, he recalls what drove him to such desperation.

"I went to the unemployment office, but there was only training and help for older people," he says.

"People of my age were supposed to cope with this difficult situation alone. There was no help for me at all."

Vulnerable generation

It was not always like this.

Professor Jeff Kingston
There's a lot more working poor, a lot more who are worried about losing their job, a lot more people stressed out that they might lose their job
Professor Jeff Kingston
Temple University, Tokyo

Going to work for a Japanese company used to be like joining a family. You worked there your whole life.

But in today's harsher economic climate, that is no longer the case. One in three workers in Japan is now a part-timer, constantly moving from job to job on part-time contracts like Takanori.

"This means there's a lot more working poor, a lot more who are worried about losing their job, a lot more people stressed out that they might lose their job," says Professor Jeff Kingston from Temple University in Tokyo.

"Workers are having to take over more responsibilities because their colleagues have been fired and downsized."

The professor believes that is one reason why there has been a huge spike in the number of suicides in recent years in Japan.

However, he points out that the lack of adequate mental health services and a growing number of elderly people here - an age group more prone to take their own lives than others - are to blame too.

But if, as most economists believe, Japan is in recession already, then any spike in suicides this time could be worse than before.

In the 'live house'

The internet makes it easier to find new ways to kill yourself.

For instance, it is not hard to find instructions for how to make lethal poison gas from household cleaning products. Hundreds of people have used this method to kill themselves in Japan this year.

Japan accepts that it has a problem with suicides but struggles to find a solution.

One answer can be found in a basement bar, a "live house" in the Kabukicho district of Tokyo on a Saturday afternoon.

A group of performers are on stage, relating their life stories. All have in the past tried to kill themselves.

The event is being broadcast live on an internet site where people discuss suicide.

The organiser, Koji Tsukino, believes this is the best way to deter people, to show them that hard times can be overcome.

"When I was in my 20s I tried to kill myself many times," he explains.

"I didn't listen when people told me not to or said I was selfish or that there were others who were suffering. But I think I would have listened to others who had gone through what I was going through if I'd had the chance to come to an event like this."

Mr Tsukino says if they save just one life then efforts like this will be worthwhile. But the reality is that such small-scale initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem.

Learning to relax

Back at Tojimbo Cliffs Yukio Shige says desperate people still come day in day out.

"The people who come here to try to die are all very earnest," he says.

"They take their work seriously, they care a lot about their families. That's why they become so stressed."

He tells them, he says, to learn to be irresponsible, to tolerate the mistakes other people make. "Otherwise," he warns, "they will just destroy themselves."

Japan's government has pledged to do more to cut the country's suicide rate, a promise which the retired policeman welcomes.

But he fears it will take years for any new initiative to work.

"I have no choice," he says, "but to stay out on the cliffs on patrol."


SEE ALSO
Elderly suicides surge in Japan
19 Jun 08 |  Asia-Pacific
S Korea takes action on suicides
01 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan takes action over suicides
08 Jun 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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