On Monday I wasn’t working and had arranged to meet a friend in Komagome. The easiest way to get there was to take the Yamanote line halfway round Tokyo; a chance to watch the city whizz past for thirty minutes. I was plugged into music and enjoying the view, when the train stopped suddenly just outside Tokyo station. Within a few seconds the conductor made an announcement that someone had pressed the emergency button on the platform and we had to wait until we could continue. We waited a few minutes and then another announcement was made; this time the conductor said that we would continue into the station. He added that the reason for the delay had been someone getting their bag trapped in a train door. As the train started to move I heard two men standing behind me say that they had thought there had been a suicide. I’m sure most of the passengers had the same thought; I know I had.
The awful reality is that the suicide rate in Japan is very high, and jumping in front of a train is one of the ways people use to end their life. The statistics are heartbreaking. Last year the statistics dropped just below 30,000 for the first time in years; the population of Japan is about 126,000,000. The rate is one of the highest in the world. It’s easy to track down all kinds of statistics on the Internet, but rather than focus on them I would like to write about how my life has been touched by suicide in Japan.
When I first came to Japan in 1991 I worked at a small language school and while I was there I became friends with one of the Japanese women who worked in the office. She told me about her father. When she was in her teens her father got into financial difficulties at work. One day he went to a station where only local trains stopped, managed to get off the platform and wait by the tracks, and when an express train came through he ran out in front of it. She told me that not long after the funeral the train company approached the family requiring compensation for the disruption to their business. She didn’t know how much it had been, but her mother told her it was ‘a lot of money’; I assume that meant millions of yen. She also told me that for the rest of school and college she had to use that same train line and went through the station where her father had killed himself every day.
A few years later I was in Chiba, working at a private high school. One morning at the staff meeting it was announced that a student in the 12th grade had committed suicide. His parents had been going through a divorce, and he had gone back to Sapporo where the family was from, and jumped from the fourteenth floor of a building. While the staff were all told, the general student population was not. His classmates certainly knew. For a while there was a vase on the desk he had used, containing the flowers specifically used on graves. It was right in the middle of the classroom, and every time I walked past I felt sad. I can’t imagine what the other students in the class were going through.
Several years ago, the husband of another Japanese friend had a stroke, and after a number of months in hospital he died. She had been busy going to the hospital while he was alive, and after his death she stayed at home. She sounded depressed in the messages I received from her, but the death of a close relative is hard and I thought she was going through the grieving process. How wrong I was. She killed herself. I attended the wake; it was at the same place we had gone to pay our respects to her husband not so long before.
I have often wondered if I could have done something. If I had gone to her house and knocked on the door, just checked in on her. I’m sure others felt the same. After every suicide there must be people asking themselves how things could have been different.
When I was at university I was clinically depressed. It lasted for about two years and even now, over twenty years later, I can still remember a little of how it felt. I remember feeling that my heart was cold, like a stone, I saw no colour or joy in life, I had to use all my energy just to function each day. I had to see my doctor every week, and before he wrote a new prescription for more anti-depressants he would ask me if I had thought about suicide. He never said it like that, he would ask me, ‘Have you had any thoughts about hurting yourself?’ and of course I said no. He wouldn’t write the prescription if I said yes.
My truthful answer would have been, ‘No, but . . . ‘ I was clinically depressed. Of course I thought about it. I didn’t think about actually killing myself, but the ideation was there. Every day was such a struggle, I was so exhausted from just keeping going, and the only relief from that long, dark tunnel was sleep. So no, I didn’t think about killing myself, but if I could just go to sleep and not wake up and have to deal with another day and then another, that didn’t seem so bad.
When someone is physically ill, it’s all right to talk about it. When someone is depressed, or dealing with another kind of mental illness, there is still so much stigma attached, it’s not so easy. I understand some of how that feels. I completed my last two years at university while I was depressed and hardly anyone knew. Somehow I fooled everyone, but it was hard. I don’t really have much memory of that time; I know I went to classes, handed in work and passed my exams, but beyond that I don’t really remember much. There probably isn’t much to remember, I think I was just getting by.
I still remember how it feels. I can’t imagine the horror, the weight of the depression, that leads someone to feel they have only one option left. I am thankful, tremendously so, that I never reached that point. In Japan, so many people do.
Anyone who takes the train in Tokyo knows that feeling. Waiting on a platform, travelling on a train, the announcement comes of a ‘jinshin jiko’ (人身事故) or ‘human accident’. It could refer to someone who has fallen off a platform (drunken salarymen, we’re looking at you), it could be a misguided individual who has somehow got themselves onto the tracks, but really, we all know. In the majority of cases, it’s a kind of code. There’s been a suicide. Someone finally couldn’t see any other option, and a life has ended. It’s a time to stop, to send out a prayer for all the people who will be affected by the heartbreaking news about to come their way.