Taeko Watanabe awoke one cold March night and found a trail of blood in the hallway, a bloody cleaver on her son Yuki's bed and no trace of him in the house. Then police discovered a suicide note in his bedroom.

"They found him in a canal by the temple and wrapped him in a blanket. After an autopsy, he came home in a coffin. I fell apart," she recalled, eyes welling up as she sat by a photo of Yuki and a Buddhist altar laden with flowers and Fuji apples.

Yuki, who was 29 when he died in 2008, was one of many who took their own life that year in Akita Prefecture. For nearly two decades, Akita had the highest suicide rate in all of Japan, which itself has the highest rate among the Group of Seven nations.