Offering lifelines in Japan

The country already has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Following the latest disasters, the government is worried there will be more suicides.

In a cramped 18th floor flat overlooking the part of Sendai that wasn’t damaged by the March 11 quake and tsunami, a frail-looking, light-energied 62-year old grandmother waits for the phone to ring.

She’s surrounded by knickknacks, and papers, and photos, and owls. Small, stuffed toy owls. Cartoon owl stickers on the walls. Sketches of owls on parchment. Owl figurines. Owls. Everywhere.


In Japanese, she tells us, a play on words can lead from “owl” to “no hardship”.

And that’s what Sachiko Tanaka’s mission now is: to help others survive through difficulty.

Her own son committed suicide six years earlier, she shares.

He was only 34. You could see her pain at the loss, but what seemed to hurt her more was that he must’ve been in such despair and a state of powerlessness to feel that his only option was to choose to die.

That he could’ve believed himself to have been so alone. Sachiko says she doesn’t want anyone else to feel that isolated.

“It is when the world is at its darkest that we must shine a light.”

Taking advantage of her phone’s silence, she listens to messages that were left when she stepped out earlier to run an errand.

Quivering voice

A young woman’s quivering voice fills the room and you don’t need to understand Japanese to hear the absolute sadness in the disembodied voice.

“She lost her young son,” Sachiko repeats. “In the tsunami.”

She jots down a number and makes a note to ring the grieving woman back.

She gets as many as 30 similar calls in a day.

“It’s not enough to just listen,” she says.

“we need to give them concrete solutions to very real problems.”

Often, she meets with the callers in person for a heart-felt chat over coffee or a shared meal.

“It is when people are in so much pain that they just want to die that we must give them the means to live.”

That can mean anything from helping them find more permanent accommodation, to counselling, to finding work, to dealing with money problems. Because that is what is most pressing at this point.

Money, or the lack thereof.

He sat with the casual confidence of one who knew exactly what he was about and where he was headed.  A branded baseball cap sat comfortably on his head.  His goatee was neatly trimmed.

A crisp, pinstriped, posh shirt was tucked into an equally posh pair of dark jeans.

A dark leather belt around his waist, and a platinum watch on his wrist. But the warmth in his eyes belied his cool exterior.

He rose as we approached and immediately launched into an exuberant explanation of his work.

His voluntary work, that is. It was clearly what inflamed him now.

A solicitor by profession, Yukimitsu Saitu says he wants to “give back”.

Focusing on the future

Within weeks of March 11, Japan seemed to be intent on rebuilding, picking itself up, trying to get everyone to focus on the future instead of drowning in memories of the past, or being weighed down by an incredibly difficult present.

But it’s not as easy as that.

“This is when the shock and numbness wears off and survivors realise the ugly reality that there are bills that need to be paid, loans that need to be dealt with, and mouths that need to be fed,” Yukimitsu says. “And with no jobs, and no money – how do you even start to rebuild?”

That’s where he comes in.

On the days he can take off work, he heads to the devastated communities and offers his services.

“I can sort out any paperwork that needs to get done. Help them work through legalities, and the like. Give them options where they feel they have none.”

At no cost to them of course.

“We need to help each other through this,” he says. “And we need to do it one on one.”

It is a sentiment not exclusive to Sachiko, or Yukimitsu.

Offering lifelines

There are many others like them offering lifelines to those that no longer have the strength to swim. Even the Japanese government is worried there will be more suicides after these disasters. Japan already has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

“It is not such an honourable thing – to opt to die,” a young Japanese woman told us a few days ago, surprised that there were still foreign-held stereotypes, or romantic notions, about suicide in Japan.

“It is a weakness,” she added emphatically.

“An irresponsible escape where they leave people behind to deal with what they couldn’t. What’s is the honour in that?”

Sachiko also spoke of how quite a few people turned away from her family after her son died by his own hand.

But again, aside from her own pain, it’s his giving in to hopelessness that hurts her more.

“The sadness stays with you throughout your life,” she says. “All we can do is help each other carry it.

“I do this because of him.”

She rises to turn on the kettle and heat some water for a cup of tea.

A framed image of her smiling son looks on her from above a memorial shrine in her study.

All around. a parliament of owls sits knowingly, their unblinking gaze a testament to hope. 

“Life MUST go on,” she repeats as a benevolent grandmother would.

Life must go on.