Archives for : June2011

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 …



3 months on

11 June, 2011: Keiko Komabayashi, 82, bows in prayer as her community observes a minute's silence in commemoration of those who lost their lives 3 months before on March 11

Back up in Tohoku researching a couple of stories and continuing photo projects. June 11 marked the 3-month anniversary of the quake and tsunamis and I visited Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture to see how the day would be marked there. While many places along the way, such as Otsuchi, were considerably improved, Kamaishi seems to have changed little this past couple of months.

A man walks past a battered bath house in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, on 11 June. Photos: Robert Gilhooly

Residents — most of them elderly — at one shelter were particularly aggrieved about the continued lack of some lifeline services. It seems that there is still no running water and in some parts of town electricity and or lighting. I spoke with Mrs Komabayashi (pictured) and she said she would be moving into a temporary accommodation “soon” though she didn’t seem so delighted as she is on her own. The city official I spoke with said they were preparing special temporary housing for elderly people — especially those without family. However, the speed, or lack of, at which the temporary facilities are being built and made available  is certainly a cause of some dissatisfaction among residents. The official explains it by saying that unlike in some places where the prefectural government is charged with the recovery effort, in Kamaishi (and Ofunato) it’s the city that must clean up the mess and rebuild.

Before and after (well, after and even more after really)

A few photos from this series documenting the progress in the recovery operations. Some places are evidently more advanced in their cleanup efforts that others.

Tohoku fishermen strive to get boats back in water

A fisheries staffer lines up blue marlin fish on the cracked concrete floor of the fish market at Shiogama city, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan on 28 May, 2011. The market, which was damaged by the March 11 magnitude quake and subsequent tsunamis, reopened for business in mid April. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly


Story published in the Japan Times today about the efforts of fishermen in badly affected coastal areas of Tohoku going it alone in their attempts to get their boats back in the water. Story, headlined “Fishermen take matters into their own hands”, can be found here

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