[Warning: Some readers may find this content distressing.]
Eriko Kobayashi was 21 when she first tried to kill herself.
“It felt like a weight was being lifted off my shoulders,” Kobayashi says, looking back 21 years to the first of her four suicide attempts. “I felt that all my troubles were about to go away and I was going to be comfortable. I felt liberated.”
At the time, Kobayashi was working at a publishing company in Tokyo, having finally found a job following a long and frustrating search after graduating from junior college during Japan’s 1990s “employment ice age.” The hours of unpaid overtime soon left her exhausted, however, and her pay was so low that she began stealing food from supermarkets.
Kobayashi eventually decided to take an overdose of pills she had been prescribed to deal with mental health issues and woke up in a hospital three days later, after a friend had found her unconscious.
Now 42, Kobayashi works for a nonprofit organization related to mental health issues and has also written four books that deal with aspects of her life, including her struggle with depression, her time living on welfare and her relationship with her family.
Although she can now look back on her suicide attempts and reflect that it would have been “a waste” if she had died then, she knows that many others are suffering as she did.
“It’s difficult to ask for help,” Kobayashi says. “By the time someone decides to take their own life, it’s likely they will have had a lot of disappointment in their life. Maybe they were bullied at school and their teacher did nothing or the other kids just stood by and watched. Maybe they wanted their parents to act a certain way and they didn’t. When you’ve had a series of disappointments and you’ve felt that despair, the feeling that no one will help you even if you ask grows stronger.”
Japan has made serious strides in reducing its suicide rate since the dark days of the late 1990s, when layoffs triggered by the Asian financial crisis helped drive the number of annual cases over 30,000 for the first time in 1998.
The figure peaked at 34,427 in 2003 but has since been on the decline, falling every year since 2009. Last year, the number dropped to 20,169, the lowest since authorities started keeping records in 1978.
Experts have credited an improving economy and the 2006 introduction of the Basic Act for Suicide Prevention as the main reasons for the reduction in numbers. However, the fact that Japan still has the highest suicide rate among the Group of Seven countries — 16 per 100,000 people — proves there is still much work to be done.
For the thousands of people directly affected, it can be difficult to escape suicide’s shadow.
“I met my wife about 10 years ago and we got married in November 2014,” says “Yuki,” a 33-year-old office worker from Ibaraki Prefecture whose wife suffers from depression and has tried to kill herself on more than one occasion.
“She can’t work, she can’t do everyday chores, she loses her confidence, thinks negatively about herself and when it gets stronger, she says she wants to kill herself,” says Yuki, who asked to be called by a pseudonym owing to privacy concerns. “At first, I tried to make things better for her, even if it was just a little, but there’s a limit to how much you can do on your own. Sometimes I would try to help her and it would really take its toll on me.”
Yuki eventually found help from Light Ring, a nonprofit organization that teaches young people how to support friends or partners who are suicidal while also taking care of their own mental health.
Light Ring Director Ayaka Ishii says feelings of despair or anger can transmit easily to young people who are trying to help, and many struggle to cope.
Ishii says it is important for young people supporting someone to look after their own well-being, seek help from others and maintain a sense of distance. She stresses the importance of “active listening” — knowing when to offer advice or give a friendly nudge while also offering a shoulder to cry on.
Ishii also acknowledges the difficulties that come with such a role.
“One thing I often hear them asking is how they should respond if they get a message from the person in the middle of the night,” Ishii says. “Communication on social media is frequent and quick, and a reply can come within seconds. How do you create a bit of distance when you’re feeling tired? What if the person dies in the time when you’re not replying? These are some of the problems they have to deal with.”
While the overall number of suicides in Japan has been steadily falling for the past 10 years, the number of young people killing themselves has remained stubbornly constant. A total of 659 people under the age of 20 died by suicide last year, up 60 from the previous year. That was the only age group to see an increase.
The death of Hana Kimura, a 22-year-old professional wrestler and star of reality TV show “Terrace House,” who apparently killed herself last month after receiving a stream of negative messages on social media, has brought the issue of youth suicide back into the national spotlight.
Midori Komori can relate. She and her husband, Shinichiro, have been fighting to raise awareness of the consequences of bullying since their 15-year-old daughter, Kasumi, killed herself in 1998 after being harassed by three classmates at her high school.
Midori and Shinichiro knew that Kasumi was being bullied and tried various ways to stop it, including speaking to the school and the parent-teachers’ association several times, and taking their daughter to a psychiatric clinic. When that proved unsuccessful and Kasumi took her own life, the couple tried to find answers by contacting the school and writing letters to their daughter’s classmates and their parents.
The school, however, denied that any bullying had taken place on its grounds, and the parents returned the letters unopened or told the Komoris to leave them alone. Midori and Shinichiro ultimately found themselves shunned by a community that preferred to turn its back rather than confront a painful truth, and the couple have been trying ever since to educate children and teachers about the dangers of bullying through their nonprofit organization, Gentle Heart Project.
“The internet and social media mean things have changed completely in the years since Kasumi died,” says Midori. “People think they’re just teasing people on the internet and it’s not a big deal, but it’s like a bomb going off for the person on the receiving end of it.
“When a lot of people are doing it, people think their part in the wrongdoing is very minor,” she says. “But which is worse: To be bullied by one person or to be bullied by 100 people? Even elementary school kids can understand that.”
Bullying, however, is just one of the many reasons why young people take their own lives. Other factors might include family relationships, abuse, academic pressure, mental health issues or financial worries.
Jun Tachibana, who leads Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Bond Project, which helps women who are suffering problems in their teens and 20s, says she often encounters young people who feel there is no place for them in society.
“These kids feel like there’s no way out for them, and the place where they seek help is very important,” Tachibana says. “These are often kids who have had bad experiences with adults, so they don’t trust them. A lot of them choose not to seek help from adults and they try to solve their problems themselves. Then, when they act on an impulse, they don’t have anyone they can turn to.”
Child welfare legislation in Japan only covers children up to the age of 18, and Tachibana says young people over that age who are suffering abuse at the hands of a family member often go unrecognized.
“A young girl in that situation came to us today and we took her to the authorities to deal with it, but I don’t know whether she’ll be given protection or not,” Tachibana says. “As things stand now, there isn’t much understanding toward people who are abused by a family member.”
Some suicide prevention groups feel a proactive approach is needed to find the people who slip through society’s cracks.
Jiro Ito is the head of OVA, a nonprofit organization that uses information and communication technology to connect people thinking of taking their own lives with groups that can help them. Ito used to work in a mental health clinic, and it was there that he realized that people who are thinking of suicide rarely verbalize their intentions.
Ito did some research into how often people type “I want to die” or similar phrases into internet search engines, and he was shocked to discover that it generally occurs around 130,000 times a month in Japan. With this in mind, Ito founded OVA and began using advertising technology to make information about suicide prevention services automatically pop up on computer or phone screens whenever the user searches for words or phrases related to suicide.
“It’s very difficult to find people who are thinking about killing themselves,” Ito says. “We use an advertising system that was originally intended for companies to attract customers, only we use it to identify people at a high risk of suicide. We have a proactive approach to finding people and reaching out to them.
“With young people, especially boys, their self-esteem is very fragile. They’re afraid that if they ask for help, they’ll be seen as weak. A lot of young people, especially boys, are resistant to the idea of sending out an SOS. It’s important to communicate with them in a way that’s easy for them, using the internet and social media and so on.”
Other suicide prevention groups rely on people to come to them, including Tokyo Suicide Prevention Center, a hotline call center with a staff of more than 30 volunteers who work in shifts each night between 8 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.
Director and head researcher Akiko Mura has been volunteering at Tokyo Suicide Prevention Center for the past 19 years, and she says the organization receives around 11,000 calls a year, mostly from people between the ages of 30 and 50. Although the ratio of people who actually take their own life in Japan is roughly 70 percent men to 30 percent women, Mura estimates that roughly 60 percent of the callers to Tokyo Suicide Prevention Center are women and 40 percent are men.
Mura says it is important to let the callers know they can speak frankly, and she believes shifting attitudes in recent years have made it easier for them to do that.
“Suicide used to be taboo in Japan,” Mura says. “Until about 20 years ago, it was difficult to even say the word ‘suicide.’ Now, people have become able to publicly say that they want to die. I think the idea that there are people who want to die — and that there’s nothing exceptional about that — has taken root.”
Mura also acknowledges that there may be dark clouds on the horizon. Tokyo Suicide Prevention Center, like more than 80 percent of suicide prevention groups, according to a poll taken in late April, has had its operations disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and had to suspend its nightly hotline in early April. The service resumed once a week from May 12, and started operating twice a week from June.
Health ministry statistics showed that suicides in April fell by 20 percent from the previous year, but experts warn that the drop may only be temporary. Reasons for the decrease could include the closure of schools in March, more employees working from home or a general sense of unity in the face of a crisis.
A study by Kyoto University’s Research Resilience Unit published at the end of April predicted that the economic fallout from the pandemic could cause an additional 140,000 to 270,000 suicides in the years to come, and support groups are bracing for a tough time ahead.
“Of course, the economy will be a factor, but I think it will be the sense of isolation coupled with the bad economy that will make people anxious and unable to see a way forward,” Mura says. “I think feelings of hopelessness and anxiety will be a big factor for people who are thinking about suicide.”
Author Kobayashi says a bad family environment and childhood bullying gave her a negative outlook on life which would cross the line into suicidal thoughts whenever she was faced with adversity. Those thoughts would crystallize over a period of three or four months and, if she felt there was no one who could help her find a way out, she would resort to desperate measures.
Kobayashi says she still suffers from depression and the thought that she wants to die still remains with her. Now, however, she says she is better equipped to cope with problems when they arise.
“I’ve now got a job and I’ve got friends, so I don’t feel like I want to die straight away,” Kobayashi says. “When I feel lonely or things aren’t going well at work, I feel like I want to die but not to the point where I would actually go ahead with it.
“The feeling that things are so bad that you want to die is just one moment,” she says. “It’s just an emotion that lasts for one moment.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency in Japan, please call 119 for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5772-0992. For those in other countries, visit https://bit.ly/Suicide-Hotlines for a detailed list of resources and assistance. Light Ring is holding a free online event aimed at young people supporting those in need from 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, June 27. Details can be found at http://lightring.or.jp/rings-1.