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. The World Health Organization says that people in Japan are now almost three times as likely to kill themselves as are Americans.
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. ( More under the cut...Collapse )