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Japan and Suicide: Still no simple explanation

The recent suicide aboard a shinkansen bullet train in Japan was shocking, but not entirely unexpected.

That the man who took his own life did it by self-immolation and that it happened aboard a high-speed train system that has been remarkably incident-free during its 50 years in operation, was the shocking part. That Japan experiences around 80 suicides per day – the highest in the developed world – and has done so each year for almost two decades is the less surprising element.

In the aftermath of the incident, interviews with neighbors by local media revealed that the 71-year-old “victim,” Haruo Hayashizaki, had complained of financial difficulties, in particular the limitations of his pension. Just minutes before he doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze, Hayashizaki reportedly called his local city office in Suginami, Tokyo, and informed officials there that he was making his final journey aboard a bullet train with the intention of taking his own life. Financially, he was simply unable to keep himself afloat, he told them.

Monetary problems are often seen as the easy scapegoat for Japan’s startlingly high suicide rate, which, until last year, consistently exceeded the 30,000 mark each year since 1997. Signs erected outside Japan’s infamous suicide forest in Yamanashi to dissuade visitors from taking their lives there were erected not by the municipal government but by an NGO specialising in financial advice.

But the picture is rarely so clear cut. Back in 1999 I wrote a story in the Japan Times following the announcement by the Health and Welfare Ministry that suicide numbers during the previous fiscal year had topped almost 32,000 — a record figure that represented a 30 percent increase over 1997 and equating to more than three times the number of deaths from automobile accidents.

Experts interviewed, such as Yoshitomo Takahashi, who was then deputy head of the Tokyo Institute of Psychiatry’s Department of Psychopathology, were critical of this pigeon-holing, insisting that numerous other factors, cultural and medical among them, could and do influence such a drastic course of action. “Suicide is never that simple,” Takahashi said. “It is invariably multifactorial.”

According to national police reports, a major suicide motive is depression. More than half of suicide victims are out of work when they died, which experts say were as likely to suggest a depression trigger as a financial one. Among them, men in their 50s were most numerous, though men in their 30s and 40s has been the demographic showing the biggest percentage increase in the past few years.

This generation has a lot of difficulty finding permanent jobs, and instead take on temping work that is unstable and causes great anxiety,” said Yukio Saito, a former executive director of Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline), a volunteer telephone counselling service that fields around 70,000 calls annually from people contemplating suicide.Callers most frequently cite mental health and family problems as the reason for contemplating suicide.  Behind that there are other issues, such as financial problems or losing a job.”

A stigma attached to depression means that men – who are 14 times more likely to take their lives than women – are unlikely to seek help, said Shizuo Machizawa, a former professor at Rikkyo University who runs the Machizawa Mental Health Clinic in Tokyo.

There was also a “generation factor” to take into consideration, with post-war boom generation men who are tied to the lifetime employment mentality, likely to feel the pressure of work more acutely than the more care-free generations below them.

A look into Haruo Hayashizaki’s life through the eyes of the local media indicates little more than plain old financial dissatisfaction. As a young man he had moved from his hometown in Iwate Prefecture to Tokyo to fulfill his dream of becoming a singer. One neighbor interviewed by local TV said Hayashizaki was generally well-liked – he had even started up a local baseball team.

According to one report, when Hayashizaki was about 30 he had fallen for a younger woman who worked at a local bar he frequented and who had become pregnant by an abusive partner. Hyashizaki had offered to support the woman, but she and the baby had died during labor.

Some reports have painted a picture of an unemployed elderly man who was single and increasingly isolated, venting his frustrations by breaking windows. But others say he had continued to work until his late 60s and had never caused a stir at previous places of employment, which included a steel factory and kindergarten bus driver.

In fact, it had only been in the past month or so that he had started to express satisfaction with his pension, according to one neighbor. Having made contributions over 35 years, this reportedly was 240,000 yen every two months, but after his rent, medical costs and utilities were deducted, little remained, he had claimed.

According to three men I interviewed who have made unsuccessful attempts at taking their lives, financial concerns were often nothing more than a tinderbox, even an excuse, behind other occasionally less tangible problems.

One of them, Hiroyuki Deyama, who twice attempted suicide at the Aokigahara suicide forest, said he had felt a sense of hopelessness after having lost his job when it was discovered he had health problems.

It was a heavy blow not just financially but to my self esteem,” said the 48 year-old former steel factory worker. Several years earlier he had been diagnosed with a heart condition that company officials deemed to place him and other workers at risk.

And with that, he lost sight of the future. His deepening depression, and lack of finances, first led him to sleep inside his rusting car, until it was towed away. Unable to find employment, he took to scrounging and begging to eke out an existence. His friends deserted him. So he went to the forest in the middle of winter armed with booze, prescription pills and bags of ice. After consuming the former two, he removed his clothes and lay down beneath the trees with the bags of ice balanced over his heart.

When two elderly walkers found him the next day his body was blue – but despite his weakened heart and troubled mind, Deyama’s solid frame had refused to give in. “Nobody seemed to care, I felt like an outcast, a liability.”

Another man, who asked to remain anonymous, also said that health issues and a divorce had sent him spiralling into an ever deeper chasm of depression. “There comes a point where something as important as money becomes not just banal but completely irrelevant,” said the man, who was in his 20s. “I wanted to talk it over with someone but had no idea who would listen.” 

Cultural issues weigh heavy. Showzen Yamashita, a priest who conducts Buddhist rites in Aokigahara forest to pray for the repose of the thousands of people who have died there over the years, says the lack of support networks in Japan is a main cause of the ever-increasing suicide rate.

They have no one to talk to, no one to share the pain, the suffering,” he said. “So they think, ‘If I take my life I can escape this misery.’ ”

And they can do so without the reservations imposed in some countries courtesy of religious and/or cultural behavioral codes, according to Yoshinori Cho, director of the psychiatry department at Teikyo University, and author of the book “Hito wa naze Jisatsu Suru no ka” (“Why do People Commit Suicide?”). “Throughout Japanese history, suicide has never been prohibited on religious or moral grounds,” Cho said. “Apart from on two specific occasions in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), suicide has never been declared illegal.”

Lifeline’s Saito concurred, saying: “Suicide is quite permissible in Japanese society, something honorable that is even glorified.”

Details of the shinkansen suicide also seem to point to this factor. A fellow traveller is said to have attempted to placate Hayashizaki, offering him money as he roamed distractedly through the front car of the express train, a canister of gasoline in his backpack. “I don’t need your money,” he reportedly replied, before dousing himself in the liquid, and, lighter in hand, standing at the front of the carriage for all to witness his grand exit.

Auckland Festival of Photography

I feel very honoured to have been invited to participate in the 2014 Auckland Festival of Photography. Photos from my suicide forest story are included in the exhibition, a part of which deals with the theme of “Memory.” There was even a write up in L’Oeil de la Photographie magazine — very humbling.

The festival this year includes quite an eclectic array of styles, from Bronek Kozka’s “Auschwitz Revisited” to Ayala Gazit’s “Was It A Dream”, the latter centering around a portrait of a brother the photographer never knew.

A noose made from neck ties dangles from a tree

A noose made from neck ties dangles from a tree. Rob Gilhooly Photo. All rights reserved

This from the review: “One of the most profound exhibitions in this year’s Festival is British photographer Rob Gilhooly’s “Suicide Forest”.  This is a beautifully composed photo essay of what may be one of the loneliest places on earth for this forest is where an inordinate number of Japanese people have chosen to end their lives. In the densely populated bush amidst the solitude of nature, men and women who have lost hope make their final communion. This is one of the most powerful and moving exhibitions I’ve seen and points to an unspoken plague of modern life. The suicide rate in Japan is the highest in the world, more than double other developed nations including the US and UK.”

While on the theme of the suicide forest this year has once more seen a massive number of inquiries from students and researchers around the globe — most notably from the US — requesting interview for a project, thesis, and so on. I make it a point to reply to each of these, though there are occasions where I am not sure if I should have done so.

One of the requests came from a US student and partly due to the slightly rude emailed request  and followup mail but mostly because I was genuinely busy, I decided to turn it down (though not before posting a very detailed entry on this blog about the subject, toward which I pointed the student.) Incredibly, I had also been told that I would have to sign and date a form stating that I give the information voluntarily and that I agree that my name not be associated with any information I give in accordance with university requirements (over 100 students have requested information to date and not one has requested I sign such a document).

Of course I said I would not sign it and I forwarded a standard agreement for the student and her professor to sign. That should have been the end of it of course but I them received a pretty rude mail from her professor basically saying I should be ashamed of myself for not seeing “this opportunity as one to help a student learn the ins-and-outs of the research method.” I replied that I thought that was her job, not mine.

In the end I decided that the student herself was actually too industrious and committed and as I had already spent some time scribbling down some answers to her questions during a train journey spent an evening completing those answers and mailed them off to her.

The truth is, I have benefited hugely over the years from some very busy people who just happen to be very decent people as well. So it seems only right that I too should try and pay something back, and I have tried on may occasions.

But, it gets harder when for example a student who you have invited along to a photo shoot never shows up (and doesn’t even bother to call to say he isn’t coming), or another one sends you an interview request like the following: “Hi Rob, Fill out the answers to the following questions …” (in the case of the latter there was not even an indication that the sender was a student or to which university she attends.)

But the clincher for me is that I just remember how I was as a student …. And they ain’t half bad really — relatively speaking!

Japan Suicide Forest

By Rob Gilhooly
I am walking through Aokigahara Jukai forest, the light rapidly fading on a mid-winter afternoon, when I am stopped dead in my tracks by a blood-curdling scream. The natural reaction would be to run, but the forest floor is a maze of roots and slippery rocks and, truth be told, I am lost in this vast woodland whose name, in part, translates as “Sea of Trees.”
Inexplicably, I find myself moving toward the sound, searching for signs of life.
Instead, I find death.
The source of that scream remains a mystery as, across a clearing, I see what looks like a pile of clothes. But as I approach, it becomes apparent it’s more than just clothes I’ve spotted.
In a small hollow, just below a tree, and curled up like a baby on a thick bed of dead leaves, lies a man, his thinning gray hair matted across his balding cranium. His pasty upper torso is shirtless, while his legs are covered only by black long johns — with blue-striped boxers sticking out above the waistband — and a pair of woolly socks.
Under his bent legs a pair of slacks, a white shirt and a jacket have been spread out as a cushion at his final resting place. Scattered around are innumerable documents, a briefcase and other remnants of a former life. Nearer to him are items more closely related to his demise: empty packets of prescription pills, beer cans and bottles of liquor.
Seemingly this man, who looks to be in his 50s, had drawn his last breath before I heard that unsourced, chilling cry.
That I came across a body in this forest was a shock, but not a surprise. For over half a century, thousands of life-weary Japanese have made one-way trips to this sprawling, 30-sq.-km tract of woodland on the northwest flank of Mount Fuji, at 3,776-meters the nation’s highest peak. It’s a dark place of stark beauty, long associated with demons in Japanese mythology — and one that has earned itself the unfortunate appellation of “Suicide Forest.”

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Sucide Forest (revisited)

Article in the Japan Times, Sunday June 26

 

Japan Times ran my feature story and photos about Aokigahara Julai “suicide forest on the Sunday Time Out pages last Sunday.

I have since received emails from from several media sources in Europe asking …………..

……. for free information.

Most don’t even have the courtesy to ask politely — “can you tell me contact numbers for …?” reads one.

I started to reply to one of them, but I can’t think what I would say.

 

Suicide in Tohoku

 

Story published in Japan Times about suicides resulting from the Tohoku disasters. Online version can be found here

This was a tough topic to cover. I found it particularly difficult because the so-called “kokoro no care” groups that are apparently providing counseling support for survivors simply refused to talk (I tried arranging interviews with groups from Osaka, Kita Kyushu, Akita and Aomori). At first I thought this was purely because of the delicate nature of the subject, but after talking with a psychiatrist back in Tokyo about this I was left with a different impression. The care groups simply have little to say because they are terribly underused, the doctor suggested.

The reason may be simple. Having spent my first few Japan years in the Tohoku region I am aware of the stoic (some, like Nobel novelist Natsume Soseki, even say stubborn) nature of  the people there, many of whom would not want to share their personal troubles with others — outsiders, especially. What’s more, I am told by Japanese doctors/psychiatrists and other experts that psychiatric care here is not as developed as in some countries in the West. “The national government pours millions into tackling Japan’s perennial suicide problem, but seems to fail to actually look at the roots of that problem,” said one.

Depression is a huge suicide trigger in Japan — the national police statistics show that. But there seems to be little effort made to tackle the issue at that level. So, instead of highly trained psychiatrists (of which there are few) we have money thrown at municipalities who spend it on “don’t do it” poster campaigns.

Another anecdote connected with this: For some years I have been documenting Japan’s notorious suicide forest (photos relating to this here), where dozens of Japanese go to kill themselves each year. Of the original measures considered to buck this trend, one of the more seriously considered ones was ….. to build a wall around the forest.

I think that just about sums it up really. Ok, so it didn’t come to fruition, but the message was pretty clear. Build a wall, and people won’t come to OUR prefecture to kill themselves. Fortunately we have some individuals who think differently than the powers in government. Hence the notices at the entrances to the forest asking people to think twice. And below a number to call to talk over your troubles.

The suicide issue here bothers me, not because the numbers are so high, but because nobody really seems to care. One suicide “expert” once asked me: “Don’t you think these people have a right to take there own life?” My answer: “Of course. But wouldn’t it be nice if they also had the right to choose to get help first?”

My six pen’orth for the day …

 

 

Photojournalism Exhibition

A visitor looks at photos from the DAYS Japan annual photojournalism awards winners' exhibition in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The exhibition runs until May 18th 2011, before moving onto various other venues in Japan.  Robert Gilhooly Photo

 

 

Shameless plug, I know, but this doesn’t happen every day. A few of my photos are on display at the Konica-Minolta Gallery in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Please drop by if you are in the area … admission is free.

Some of the photographers on display are Days Photojournalism Awards first prize winner Jan Dago and Adam Dean, among other award-winning snappers. I was awarded with a prize by special jury for my suicide forest photos, three of which are on display in the gallery sandwiched between those depicting the Pakistan floods by Andrees Latif and others about maternal mortality in Sierra Leone by Jean Chung. I really don’t mind rubbing shoulders with those two.

A gallery of the suicide forest photos can be found here. Some people might find a few of these shots a little disturbing.

Access directions to Konica-Minolta gallery here

Info on exhibition here (Japanese only)

Review on CNN here

 

 

 

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