They come on sunny days, when the sky is bright and clear above the Tojinbo cliffs along the coast of the Sea of Japan. Yukio Shige says they don't look at the view. "They don't carry a camera or souvenir gifts," he says. "They don't have anything. They hang their heads and stare at the ground."
For five years, Shige, 65, has approached such people at the cliffs' edge with a simple "Hello" and a smile. He might ask how they came there and at what inn they were staying. Sometimes after a light touch to the shoulder, Shige says, they burst into tears, and he begins to console them. "You've had a hard time up until now," he says, "haven't you?"
The basalt cliffs in Fukui prefecture, north of Kyoto on the western coast of Japan, are a well-known site for suicide in a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world; at 23.8 per 100,000, Japan's rate is significantly higher than that of the U.S., for example, where the rate is 11 per 100,000. One in 5 Japanese men and women has seriously considered taking his or her life, according to a recent government survey; each year over the past decade, more than 30,000 people have killed themselves. And as the economic downturn has pushed rates of unemployment and bankruptcy higher, the number of suicides has risen. From January through April, 11,236 people killed themselves, up 4.5% from the same period in 2008. "I think there will be many more suicides this year," says Shige.
The retired detective from nearby Fukui City has patrolled the cliffs two or three times a day since 2004, wearing white gloves and a floppy sun hat, carrying binoculars to focus on three spots on the cliffs where suicides are most common. He has set up a nonprofit foundation to aid the work and says he has helped prevent 188 potential suicides. After he's talked them off the cliffs, Shige--a trained counselor--takes them to his small office, where two gas heaters keep a kettle boiling, ready to make the tea that accompanies his counseling sessions. For men, Shige says, the biggest problems are debt and unemployment; most of the women are there because of depression or health issues. "If it's a case of sexual harassment, I'll go with her to the office and confront her boss," says Shige. "If a child has issues with his father, I tell the parent that he is driving his child to suicide and get them to write a promise to change. They hang it on the wall."
There's no rush in Shige's office. He offers those who go there oroshi-mochi, a dish of pounded sticky rice served with grated radish. Traditionally the food is prepared to celebrate the New Year, with each family taking its own rice to be mixed with that of its neighbors. "When people come here and eat mochi, they remember their childhood--father, mother, siblings, hometown. They remember they're not alone," Shige says.