Tojinbo in Fukui Prefecture is famous less for beauty, though its towering seaside cliffs are very beautiful, than for suicide. In the worst of times, some 25 people a year come here to end their lives. Lately the number has declined – it was 14 in 2013. Maybe that owes something to a reviving economy. Certainly it owes something – much – to a 70-year-old retired police officer named Yukio Shige, who says of himself, “I’m the chotto matte man.” “Chotto matte” means, “Hold on, wait.” Don’t jump yet. Talk to me first.
September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. The World Health Organization (WHO) counts 800,000 to 1 million suicides a year. It’s the 10th leading cause of death. Japan’s suicide numbers, below 30,000 for three years running, still rank very high – 7th worldwide (21.4 per 100,000 population), according to WHO.
In honor of the occasion, Shukan Shincho (Sept 18) profiles Shige, whose peculiar mission had a fittingly peculiar beginning.
It was in the fall of 2003. He’d joined the police force in 1962 and was on one of his last patrols before retirement. An elderly couple on a bench caught his attention. They ran an izakaya pub, they told him, whose business had declined: they were hopelessly in debt. At sunset they would plunge off the cliff into the sea.
“Chotto matte,” Shige said to them. He called for a patrol car, took the couple to the public welfare bureau, and helped with the formalities. Five days later, he received a letter. It was from the couple. They’d been refused welfare and had gone to Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture – where, after sending the letter, they hanged themselves.
Shige knew then what he would do following retirement. His life since then has basically been an extended patrol of the Tojinbo cliffs, together with some 20 volunteers recruited by the NPO he founded. Over the years, he figures they’ve saved some 500 lives.
You can tell, generally, when a solitary wanderer is no mere sightseer. If someone looks troubled, Shige or one of the others approaches and starts a casual conversation: “Hi, where’re you from?” “Leave me alone, I’ve had enough!” “Chotto matte…”
There are ways to do this, and ways not to do it. As an example of the latter Shige cites a recent incident that occurred while he happened to be out of town. A young woman was at the top of the cliff looking down. Her intention seemed pretty clear, and so it was. To one of Shige’s volunteers she said, “Don’t talk to me for 10 minutes.” Fine – she needed to think. Meanwhil, the police gathered, an ambulance came, the Coast Guard was ready. The 10 minutes passed and a group of policewomen began trying to talk her down. They talked for five hours. “Sayonara,” said the woman, and jumped.
“What did the policewomen say to her?” demanded Shige.
“They said, ‘Think how your mother and father must be worrying,’” said the volunteer.
Shige saw red. “The worst thing possible!”
There’s only one way to deal with this, Shige emphasizes to Shukan Shincho. “You yourself must help them get back on their feet, work with them to solve their problems. If they’re in debt, I take them to legal aid people; if they’re out of work I take them to the Hello Work employment agency; if they’re homeless, I take them home with me.” If it’s trouble at work, he goes to the person’s work place and tries to sort things out.
It’s a tough, emotionally draining assignment he gave himself 11 years ago. If fewer suicides occur lately at Tojinbo, he can take a good share of the credit. But he’s a realist, and not given to easy satisfaction. “I know of seven people,” he says, “who walked away from Tojinbo – only to take their lives somewhere else.”© Japan Today