by Rev. Yukan Ogawa
Bukkyo Times January 31, 2013
On January 17th, the National Police Agency of Japan made public preliminary statistics on the suicide rate from last year, 2012, which was 27,766 suicide deaths. Many people have made the observation from this report that it is the first time in 15 years that the suicide rate has been under 30,000 annually. Certainly, this is a major decrease. In 2006, the Basic Law on Countermeasures to Suicide was established by the Japanese government, and gradually measures to prevent suicide by both the public and private sectors have been set up and are now running. Awareness has spread that suicide now cannot be dealt with as a problem of individuals but must be taken on by society as a whole.
As Yasuyuki Shimizu—the director of the non-profit, Life Link, working on suicide prevention—has pointed out, the background behind the recent decrease is the actual number of “necessary social conditions to promote dealing with suicide”, such as the taking of effective measures in each locality based on public data provided by each city, ward, town, and village; the monthly strengthening of prevention measures; the building up of networks of citizens groups, and so on.
However, we certainly cannot simply say that getting under 30,000 annual suicides is good. The present number of 27,766 suicides reflects 76 people per day and 1 person every 20 minutes who sever their own lives. It is estimated that the number of people who attempt suicide is 10 times this number, so that in reality, every 2 minutes there is someone who engages in the act of severing their life. Furthermore, it’s impossible to estimate the number of people who are thinking about it and holding their ground against the critical shift to taking such action. The figure of 30,000, therefore, does not really capture the full extent of the situation. It is in this context that Buddhists have begun to consider how to best confront the issue.
The Association of Priests Confronting Suicide and “Self-Death” (formerly called the Association of Priests Grappling with the Suicide Problem) began by doing counseling through letter correspondence almost exactly 5 years ago. As of January 23, 2013, the group has received a total of 4, 718 letters from 900 different people. It’s hard to assess whether that is many or just a few. The number of priests doing this work now is limited to 30, and it was only 10 when the group began. As these priests are also busy taking care of their temples or engaging in other work, there is a sense of limitation about what they can do. I, myself, am engaged in general telephone counseling, and I often feel there is a lack of counselors and telephone lines when callers tell me, “I called more than ten times and now finally got through.” Regardless of whether it is a group of priests or a lay group, all organizations involved in such work are facing the problem of a lack of funding and counselors.
The Association of Priests holds regularly scheduled meetings of bereaved family members called “Life Gatherings” and memorial services for those who have taken their own lives called “A Day of Life, A Time of Life”. In general, when we hear about counseling concerning suicide, there is the tendency to consider the prevention of the suicidal individual only. However, after a suicide does take place, there arises in the family a deep shock. There are a number of cases of family members who have thoughts of also committing suicide, so there is also the theme in there work of the need for caring for the bereaved family. The monthly “Life Gatherings” have been held at Tsukiji Hongan-ji, a Jodo Shin Pure Land denomination temple in Tokyo, with a regular participation of at least 15 people. By holding the gathering inside the Tokyo metropolitan area, the scale can be made larger into one main event.
The memorial services are held every year on December 1st in Tokyo at one of the major temples of each denomination. Last year more than 140 bereaved family members participated. Further, in the major cities of Osaka, Nagoya and Hiroshima, priests from a variety of different denominations have been holding “Life Gatherings” and memorial services. Such services are spreading amongst interested priests in each denomination. Denominational headquarters are also showing their interest in getting involved in the suicide problem by holding lectures and short courses as well as publishing manuals on how to perform counseling.
Last year, the Niwano Peace Foundation (affiliated with the Rissho Koseikai Buddhist denomination) issued their 2nd Survey on the Social Contributions of Religious Organizations in which they asked the question, “What are the social contributions that you know of by religious organizations?” Among the answers, such as “social welfare facilities” and “management of educational institutions”, the two areas that showed marked increase from the 1st survey in 2008 were “volunteer activities at the time of disasters” (18.7%→21.0%) and “activities for the prevention of suicide” (7.5%→11.2%). Truly grassroots activities can be said to have contributed to this 4% increase, but from the figure of 11% we can see the reality that priests and temples have not been previously seen as places to go for counseling when facing death.
I don’t think there were any responses that said, “This is what Buddhists should be doing.” Counseling work is not just about deep listening but also about the therapeutic effect of chanting and the anxiety that can be resolved from a dharma talk. This writer believes that the suffering of people today can be resolved from the teachings and practices of each Buddhist denomination as well as from the original Buddhism of Shakyamuni. The reason is that Buddhism is a religion that begins with suffering and how the teaching and practice can and should respond to such suffering. The methods really depend on the particular sense and experience that each individual Buddhist has. By coming into contact with many kinds of suffering in different places, we priests can become skilled in knowing the best way to confront each individual’s suffering and also how to offer the most appropriate teaching. But the first thing that needs to take place is the first step of “going forth” into the world.
Rev. Yukan Ogawa was born in 1977 and is the vice-abbot of Renpo-ji, a Jodo Pure Land temple in Fuchu City on the edge of Tokyo. He is a research fellow at the International Institute for the Study of Religions and a research staff at the Jodo Shu Research Institute. He first became involved in the suicide issue in 2006 through his support of the Engaged Buddhist Project at the International Buddhist Exchange Center in Yokohama and, since then, has also been exposing Buddhists in other countries to the issue through the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).
 “Self-Death” is a literal translation for the Japanese term ji-shi. This term has been adopted by those in the field as a way to shift away from the pejorative sense of the standard term for suicide, ji-satsu or “self-murder”, and the taboos around discussing the problem openly as well as blaming the suicidal for selfishness and lack of concern for others.