Ruth Hetcamp

Ruth Hetcamp, 75, is the founder of Tokyo Inochi-no-Denwa (Lifeline), Japan’s first telephone counseling service. Ruth moved to Japan from Germany in 1960 to offer face-to-face counseling to working girls in Tokyo’s red-light districts. In time, she recognized the potential of a confidential, anonymous phone call to help those who would otherwise be too shy to talk about their problems. She set up IND in 1971 and when two years later its English language service, Tokyo English Lifeline (TELL) started, she was there to help. The phones have been ringing off the hook ever since: Last year in IND’s 51 centers around Japan, 7,015 trained volunteers answered 702,957 calls in Japanese and TELL, 80 volunteers had 5,988 calls, many from those who were contemplating suicide. For her contribution to public welfare in Japan, this month Ruth received one of Japan’s highest honors, The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, awarded by the Emperor and the Office of the Prime Minister.

If you improve your listening skills, you will really hear what others are saying. What people put into words and what they mean are often very different, not to mention that what the other person understands is a whole other story. All these gaps lead to a lot of pain and arguments. Our volunteers go through various sensitivity trainings, and I’m convinced that if everyone did that, we would all have happier lives. In a nutshell: Don’t voice your own opinion, but listen and accept others’.

The key to happiness is to find your own calling and to be truthful to that. When I arrived in 1960, I didn’t know much about phone counseling. But since I saw the need for such a service, I began learning about it. In other words, you must trust that you will develop the necessary skills as you go along toward your goals.

We might not be able to save people from suicide, but we try to help them. On the phone line we offer an open, confidential conversation to those who feel like killing themselves. We can’t guarantee that they choose to stay alive, but we try to bring their attention to the fact that there might be ways they can help themselves. Maybe in the past they felt suicidal, so we ask them what worked for them in those instances, what kept them going. We might ask them to promise to stay alive until the next day when they might see things differently. A lot of them do.

What seems like a tragedy at the moment might look very different tomorrow. We had a call from a young girl who was in a Hokkaido hotel when she saw a TV program about Inochi-no-Denwa. She called the line and told one of our counselors that she’d traveled all the way from Kyushu to Hokkaido to kill herself in the ocean, because the water is so cold up there that death is almost instant. She’d planned to drown herself, but after talking to one of our counselors, she decided to wait till the next morning. When she woke up, she called us again, and instead of heading for the ocean, she came to Tokyo to live at our shelter. She stayed for three months and I hope she is still alive.

Faith is everything. For me every conversation and every relationship takes the shape of a triangle, with three people present: the person I talk to, God and myself. I know that He promised to be with us, so even if I don’t feel His presence at all, I believe that He is here.

New technology has the potential to cure age-old ills. I was invited to Japan to give face-to-face counseling to prostitutes. The idea was good, but when we tried to communicate with the girls, we were faced with a lot of difficulty. Many were nervous, shy or scared to talk to us, so we had to come up with some means to reach out to them. So we began using the phone, like our friends at lifelines in other countries did. “Help is as close as the next telephone” was their motto, and we adopted it. Today we use computers and mobile phones, and two years ago we started an e-mail counseling service.

Don’t believe naysayers: No mission is impossible! Just don’t give up. In 1968, Japanese specialists and institutions discouraged me from trying to set up IND. They told me that Japanese people were not used to volunteering and that even if we did manage to gather enough volunteers to start a service, nobody would call, as Japanese do not discuss their problems. Both assumptions were completely wrong.

There is help. Anyone who needs a place to stay can go to a city office in Japan and they will be referred to a shelter. The reason addresses are not listed in a phonebook is because residents, who are fleeing from domestic violence, must be protected. I’m involved with a shelter in Tokyo, where 1,500 women and children stayed in the past 50 years.

I see smaller things thanks to Japan. Japanese observe nature very closely and even a tiny leaf gives them immense pleasure to look at. Before I came to Japan, of course I noticed the beauty of flowers, but I didn’t see nature on such a minuscule scale as now.

Volunteering is the best thing you can do for yourself. We all know the pleasure we get out of doing something for our loved ones. I believe that when we help those whom we might not even know, we can feel just as happy.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Out & About.” Learn more at:

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