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I recently had the chance to work with documentary filmmakers Rene Duignan and Marc-Antoine, helping them optimize their documentary “Saving 10.000”, a film about the tragically high number of suicides in Japan, for YouTube SEO.
But no, this is not a case study, nor will I mention anything else about the work from here on. There are times when self-promotion, even if relevant, is just not OK, and this is one of them. Instead, this time around, I simply want to talk a bit about my personal history with suicide in Japan, a country that I love very much, and have visited frequently in the past, and perhaps help further bring the issue to light a little.
I’ve been to Japan many times, primarily Tokyo, I’ve met many wonderful people, I’ve learned the language, I frequently return, and it holds a very dear place in my heart. Tokyo is a tremendously vibrant city to be in, perhaps best described by Lonely Planet, when they said: “If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Tokyo is the city that never even takes a break.”
Indeed, Tokyo is a mesmerizing city. It captivates you, with its extreme visual pollution of colours and sound, that never end even for a second. You are bombarded with outlandish fashion, massive outdoor TV’s on buildings, speakers on cars (an often preferred way for politicians, during campaign time, to get their message out), gadgets left and right, not to mention, of course, the almost 30 million people that live in the Greater Tokyo area. The busiest train station in Japan, Shinjuku, situated in the middle of Tokyo, has almost 3 million people pass through it every single day.
The first time I visited Tokyo, I fell in love with the city almost instantly. Indeed, I also fell in love with the people there, and met a girl named Urara. The feeling was mutual, and a very loving relationship blossomed.
She had been suffering from depression for many years, and had recently been subject to Japans outright archaic form of mental care; being tied down to a bed for weeks, in an isolated cell in a mental institute. While doctors tried to medicate and force the sadness and depression out of her, her family was instead convinced that an evil spirit from Denmark (where she had visited me earlier) had taken control of her body.
No one in Japan, except a single nun in a church for a few hours, ever considered that perhaps, just perhaps, loving attention might be the best way to combat her illness.
Merely 8 months later, while I was pondering how to propose to her, she jumped from a building, dying instantly.
Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, resulting in roughly 30.000 suicides every year, a number that has stayed worryingly static for decades. The reasons for suicide in Japan are many, and a complicated issue without a single right answer, no single “fix it all” solution.
You can point the finger at Japans incredibly outdated view on mental illness and how to combat it, you can say that the “work until you die” type mentality of the Japanese job market is to blame, you could say the insurance companies willfully profit off suicides, you could look at the horrid rate of child suicides due to bullying and the strict Japanese school system, you could simply study the “with us or against us” Japanese mentality, or look at the Honne / Tatamae (inner and outer face) culture, which typically prevents people from talking about their personal issues.
However I, much like Rene in his documentary, am more frustrated by the general lack of care, the general lack of just giving a shit, then not necessarily doing the right things. If Japan at least tried to do something, that would be a step in the right direction.
But right now, if you call Inochi no Denwa, the Japanese suicide hotline, you might have to call upwards of 30 times, just to get through and talk to someone. So much for a hotline, huh? After my girlfriend killed herself, I myself went into a severe depression, and for months I walked around Tokyo, where I had settled to be with her family during birthdays and funerals, with suicidal thoughts.
I remember standing near on the sidewalk in Nishi-Shinjuku, on my way to another night of trying to drink any form of thought of my head, and looking at the traffic. As I stopped and starred at the trucks passing by me on the highway, I probably looked calm and sleek in my fashion clothes to anyone walking by. In my head, I was debating whether or not I should walk out into the oncoming traffic, and just get it all over with.
I can tell you, without a doubt, that had I called a hotline, and not got through, I would not have called again. At points like those in your life, just calling a hotline takes more effort and control than you can probably imagine.
To combat suicide, Japan has done things like building meter-high fences at train stations that only open once the train is there. Or perhaps you’ve heard of the (in)famous blue lights on Tokyo’s train stations, that are said to lower suicides by their soothing colour? (something I was shocked to learn, from Renes documentary, has actually helped)
See, Japan has a culture of trying to prevent the act of suicide, instead of fixing why people are suicidal in the first place. Instead of taking a look inward, and saying “hey, you know what, these practices are just not ok”, instead of trying to actually help the people suffering, they merely try to prevent them from doing it. And what they do to prevent it, isn’t even all that much.
One of the biggest issues with suicide in Japan, is how suicide is portrayed in the media. Close focus is put on the politicians who commit suicide after a scandal, the pop culture star who jumped under stress, the bullied kid who hanged himself.
While walking around in Aokigahara forest in Japan, the most popular place in Japan to commit suicide, I think Rene says it better than I ever could:
“You get people coming here, they’re treasure hunting, they’re not looking for gold or silver, they’re looking for rope, razor blades, shoes, wallets, or they’re looking for the jackpot. They’re looking for a hanging body. You put that hanging body on YouTube, you get a million people viewing your video, downloading it.
You get TV shows, serious news shows, coming here looking for bodies, viewing corpses and skeletons from every angle. You have movies coming here talking about ghosts, spirits, how it’s all haunted. All trying to make money. All trying to use this place as entertainment, a place of tragedy.
And what happens, is that more and more people will come here, more and more people will kill themselves. It’s already the number one suicide spot in the world, stop advertising it, mass marketing it, to make money. Why not try to do something about suicide, instead of promoting it.”
Japanese media has a tendency to glorify the act of suicide. They rarely show how the hanging body pissed itself, how the face is disfigured in pain. How the human body has a tendency to, frankly, shit itself after dying. Nor do they show the long-term mental trauma on those left behind.
I’ve previously also worked with the Tokyo English Life Line, doing graphic work for them, a charity I know Rene also supports. And from my talks with them, I know they feel the same frustrations at how the topic is being treated in Japan. I know they also feel burdened by the mediaeval mental health care system the country utilizes.
“Saving 10.000” has already won many awards around the globe, including “Official Selection for Japan Times – Top 10 Movies of 2013″, “Humanitarian Gold Award”, and has had a special Screening held for the Upper House of Japanese Parliament.
In light of this, my contribution seems small. After all, all I did was edit some text, and do a little research. But I hope my contribution, even if small, to Rene and Marcs video, will help it be seen by many more people. I hope that what I did for them, will help it reach an even greater audience than it already has, and in turn, help raise even more awareness to this very serious problem in Japan.
If you want to do your little part, share the video with your friends. Put it on Facebook, or tweet about it. If you have a blog, maybe mention it in a post.
And if you know someone that suffers from depression, or has suicidal tendencies, please help them seek the proper help they truly need.
You can watch the documentary, in full, for free, here.