TOJINBO: Retired policeman Yukio Shige is still on patrol, walking daily along the Tojinbo cliff, one of the best-known suicide spots in Japan where he pursues a private mission to prevent people leaping.

Shige’s method of persuading someone to stay alive is quite simple, he said.

When he spots a person standing on the edge of the cliff, he talks to them gently and brings them back to his cafe, where he serves them warm a rice cake.“You can see what the person is here for just by looking at the way they stand on the edge,” he said. “Most of them look relieved and soon break down in tears when I just say hi.”

Shige, 64, said he had no idea until just before his retirement in 2004 how many people jump to their deaths from the sheer rocky cliff of Tojinbo, which faces the crashing waves of the Sea of Japan (East Sea).“I’ve seen as many as 10 bodies being recovered in one month,” he said.

“I was just stunned by this, but what struck me even more was that people here said it was normal for this place.”

Upon retiring, he opened a small cafe near the cliff edge and established a non-profit group to support people coming to Tojinbo in distress.

Since then he has patrolled along some 1.4 kilometres of the rocky cliff almost every day, scouring the precipice with binoculars.

He and his supporters say they have prevented 167 people from leaping in the past four years and eight months.

Now, however, he worries that the number of people wanting to commit suicide will grow as the global economic crisis threatens to hit Japan hard.

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with more than 30,000 people killing themselves every year since 1998.

In recent years, one of the main chosen methods has been burning charcoal in cars to die from carbon monoxide poisoning, as well as mixing bath salts and detergent to create a deadly gas, a method widely available on the Internet.

Police data from 2007 show depression was Japan’s number one cause for suicide, followed by illness and debt.

In Tojinbo alone, 257 people leapt to their deaths in the decade to 2007, with many others attempting but failing to die, Shige said.

Authorities have long neglected the issue as killing oneself tends to be considered a personal problem.

Nevertheless, in the face of such huge numbers, the Japanese government created a law in 2006 for the first time acknowledging suicide as a social challenge and encouraging local authorities to provide counselling and support to those who attempted to kill themselves.

Still, Shige notes, Tojinbo’s city authorities have not put up a single fence or warning sign along the cliff, nor responded to his incessant calls for an official counselling centre near the edge.

Tourism industry advertising ‘suicide spot’

Before retiring to Tojinbo, Shige spent most of his 42-year career as a detective, chasing crimes such as underground gambling and drug violations.

Five years ago, the last before his retirement, he was assigned to a police station covering Tojinbo cliff in central Fukui prefecture.

While shocked to see the place as a chosen suicide spot, he was further distressed by the gruesome realisation that Tojinbo’s local economy relies on this fact to support and promote its tourism industry.

“Guides on the ferry would make sure to introduce this place as a big suicide spot while crowds of visitors come here in buses hanging the sign ‘The Mystery Tour’,” Shige said in disgust.

“I asked tour guides to stop advertising Tojinbo as a suicide spot, but a local town assembly member once told me tourists would never come to a place like this otherwise. ‘So why don’t you leave it alone?’ he said.”

Noting that local stores sell T-shirts with slogans reading “I’m tired of living” or “I live in hell,” Shige said: “I would say this place has solicited people’s suicides.”

He fears that without funding for his own non-profit efforts he and his partner, Misako Kawagoe, will find it difficult to continue their mission.

In the first year after they started the group, it went 1.2 million yen (13,000 dollars) into the red. It also posted losses for the next two years.

Five years ago, while still a policeman, Shige spotted an elderly couple sitting on a bench for hours watching waves breaking on the cliff.

They said they had come to kill themselves because, after shutting down their Tokyo bar, they were left with a debt of two million yen they had no way of paying off.

“I persuaded them to keep trying and promised that the local social security office would take care of them,” Shige said.

But he later heard that after a distressing round of begging trips to various government offices, they had gone elsewhere and hanged themselves.

“Public help is the last resort for people like them,” he said. “I promised myself I wouldn’t stop until the government starts moving.”

Shige and Kawagoe often travel home with the people they talk out of suicide. And when people have no home to go to, the pair find them somewhere to live and give them money until they can get by on their own.While Shige is the frontman in the operation, Kawagoe has her own reasons to help people on the edge.

“I myself lost my parents in suicides when I was 15,” said Kawagoe. “My father hanged himself and my mother later swallowed pesticide to follow him. Both times I found their bodies.

“I had never disclosed this to anyone. But when Mr Shige asked me to join his work, I thought I had to face it,” she said.

“I learned many people have their own problems. I just cannot let them go alone,” she said.

Shige fears the current economic turmoil could push more people towards suicide, especially with tens of thousands of contract workers being laid off across the country.

Due to the global downturn, Japanese firms including leading automakers have downgraded their earnings, cut jobs and stopped factory lines as demand falls for exports.

“We are concerned that the number of people who try to commit suicide here may rapidly grow,” he said in a petition submitted to the local mayor and the tourism association, urging them to take action.

In November alone, he said, four out of six people he saved from suicide said they wanted to die because they could not find a job.

“To be honest, this is not easy work physically or financially. I could quit even tomorrow,” Shige said with a cynical smile. “But I will never stop until the government finally does something.”—AFP



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