Suicides are on the rise among Japanese young people aged 13 to 19. That concerns 21-year-old Koki Ozora, who suffered from depression as a child.
Ozora started a nonprofit volunteer organization called Anata no Ibasho. In English, that means “a place for you.” The group offers a 24-hour text-messaging service for those seeking a sympathetic listener. Anata no Ibasho promises to answer every request, as soon as possible and sometimes within seconds.
The online Japanese-language message service has grown to 500 volunteers since March. Many of them live in other countries and different time zones. The volunteers provide assistance during the hours when suicides are most common: from 10 at night to sunrise.
Ozora’s idea has worked well during the COVID-19 crisis. Every part of the operation is carried out online, including training for volunteers. Anata no Ibasho grew its volunteer numbers quickly. Such online services are rare in Japan.
“This really gives me hope,” Ozora said of the large number of volunteers. “They tell me they just had to do something.”
Anata no Ibasho has received more than 15,000 online messages asking for help, or about 130 a day.
Some messages express very deep pain: One texter discusses their fears of killing their own children. Another talks about self-hate after being sexually abused by a parent.
Thirty-two percent of the texts sent to Anata no Ibasho concern suicide. Twelve percent of texts are about the difficulties and worries of parenting.
The volunteers’ goal is to offer immediate help within 40 minutes. The advice can include that a texter seek help from police or aid from a shelter.
Japan has about 50 suicides a day. A woman is killed once every three days by her partner or former partner, and 160,000 cases of child abuse get reported each year. That information comes from government and United Nations data. Several suicides among Japanese celebrities this year have brought new attention to mental health issues in Japan.
Sumie Uehara is a volunteer at Anata no Ibasho. She says helping someone through online messaging can be difficult because all you have are words.
“You don’t ever negate their feelings or try to solve everything in a hurry. You’re just there to listen, and understand,” she said.
Ozora says he thinks Japan still does not recognize the difference between a healthy solitude and an unhealthy aloneness.
Ozora says the first adult he learned to trust was his high school teacher, Takashi Fujii.
“Without him, I wouldn’t even be around today. It was a miracle I came across him,” said Ozora.
Fujii remembers. He said he noticed in school that Ozora never laughed. The teacher said he tried to show care for his student and get him excited about life.
Ozora has begun collecting information from Anata no Ibasho for a research project. He hopes to continue his university studies in Great Britain. Britain has become a world leader in dealing with public health issues, with a Minister for Loneliness named in 2018.
But Ozora says his biggest dream is to have a happy family.
He said, “I never had that. There is a father, and there is a mother. The children are happy and can do whatever they want. It’s an everyday family. But, if anything, that is what I want the most.”
I’m Jonathan Evans.
Yuri Kageyama reported on this story for the Associated Press. Jonathan Evans adapted this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
negate – v. to cause something to not be effective
solitude – n. a state or situation in which you are alone usually because you want to be
zone – n. an area that is different from other areas in a particular way