Saturday 30 September 2023

Taking Steps to Deal with Suicide in Japan

September can be an especially stressful time for many in Japan, with school and work re-starting, and that is reflected in the fact that this and the following month are typically the worse months for suicide. This is not only in Japan of course - September 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day - but it is true that Japan, for a long time, had the highest suicide rate among the G7 countries, though it was overtaken by the US in 2017. Actually, after peaking in 2003, the rate in Japan fell dramatically in the last 15 years, including ten straight years of decline from 2009 to 2019; unfortunately, the pandemic hit many especially hard in Japan, and suicides - particularly among young women - have risen in the past three years. Below is a comparison of suicides in the UK and Japan comparing 2003 and 2022:

2003 data from WHO Global Health Observatory (here); suicide rate=number of suicides per 100,000

To raise awareness of this alarming trend, Tokoyo English Lifeline (TELL), a Tokyo-based organisation providing mental health support and counseling services to Japan’s international community, held a campaign called Move for Mental Health which consisted of a Step Up Challenge (running from September 10th to October 10th) encouraging individuals and teams to take 21,881 steps in one day, the number of Japanese who committed suicide last year, and culminating in a Tokyo Tower Climb on October 14th.

Wanting to do our bit, we got a team together and early one Saturday morning we arrived at Ome Station in Western Tokyo, planning to walk 12km to Takimoto cable car at the bottom of Mount Mitake(御岳山), a sacred mountain that has been worshipped since ancient times (the protective deity O-inu sama or Sacred Wolf attracts many dog owners too!). Ome is one of the stations along the Ome-Line in Western Tokyo which runs from urban Tachikawa to Okutama, a tiny town located in the Okutama Mountains which is actually the largest municipality in Tokyo! The route took us along the beautiful Tama River (多摩川), upstream of the Tamagawa Aqueduct which I have written about before. The line drips in nostalgia for a time gone, and indeed Ome-Station itself promotes a deliberate "Showa" vibe as the images show.

The walk along the river is truly breathtaking, white-water rapids popular with canoeists and rafters, cool clean air, incredible greenery, birdsong, families enjoying barbecues on the river bank - and even people panning for gold (video here)! But amidst the lovely scenery we also took time to remember why exactly we were walking and what each step represented. Walking along the Tama River made this all the more poignant since one of Japan's most famous writers, Osamu Dazai, committed suicide, drowning himself together with his lover in the rain swollen Tamagawa Aqueduct in 1948 just before his 39th birthday. 

The cable car at the foot of Mount Mitake - dogs welcome! - took us up to Mitakesan Station (831m), and from there was a short 1.2km climb to the summit (929m) where we found the Musashi-Mitake Shrine (武蔵御嶽神社). More interesting for me was Ubuyasu-sha (産安社) or "safe birth" shrine, a power spot featuring ancient cedar trees that when touched would bring luck in finding a partner, getting pregnant, and giving birth safely - as well as promising longevity (chōju=長寿). Given the purpose of our walk, this seemed particularly apt, and a long life is something I wish for everyone, especially those thinking of killing themselves - I pray that you can find the strength and courage to reach out to and confide in someone close to you - or to a lifeline counsellor - and take that first brave step in moving forward.

For a summary of our climb, there's a lovely video here by Diya, an English speaking therapist supporting expats, nomads, and internationals - both inside and outside Japan. For those inside Japan - whether Japanese or non-Japanese - who are struggling and need help in English, contact TELL on 03-5774-0992 or via chat (see here for hours). You are not alone. Finally, for those worried about someone but not sure what to say and do, this page has some hints, including the best way to listen and offer support, as well as how to make a safety plan together. COMMENTS are, as always, very welcome.

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