Seminar 7: From a “Disconnected Society” to a “Connected Society”: Depopulation, Suicide, and Death from Isolation

Speaker: Rev. Toshihide Hakamata

Director, Thinking about Our Hearts and Lives Association

read the entire text of his talk here


Japan has become enshrouded in the darkness of a disconnected society that grew out of the period of high economic growth, bringing with it depopulation, suicide, and death from isolation in our rural regions. To address these issues, Buddhist priests have opened up cafes and places to hangout in these communities, bringing back liveliness and interconnection among the people. Through this activism, they are seeking to redefine and revitalize the role of Buddhist priests in modern society, as well as the role of Buddhist temples and the larger Buddhist denominations. Although the latter two potentialities have not yet been fully realized, the work of these priests points to the rebuilding of social networks of support and intimacy based around the Buddhist temple.

Rev. Hakamata Toshihide is one the important leaders in this movement and a member of the Association of Priests Grappling with the Suicide Problem (Jisatsu taisaku-ni torikumu soryo-no-kai 自殺対策に取り組む僧侶の会)new name. Begun in late 2007, this group has assembled a variety of priests who individually came to work on the issue of suicide prevention.

Rev Hakamata himself was born in 1958 and is the abbot of Gesso-ji, a Soto Zen temple in the area of Fujisato-cho in one of Japan’s most northern and remote areas of Akita with its stunningly beautiful nature and brutal winters. Akita is also notorious in Japan for suicide, having had until recently the highest suicide rate in the country for eleven years running. The area of Fujisato-cho itself had the highest rate of suicide within Akita, specifically among the elderly. Some still consider that the rural areas in Japan preserve the traditional community values of Japanese culture. However, the huge depopulation of these areas over the last eighty years has led to high rates of suicide related to solitude, especially among the elderly living in depopulated mountainous regions. Rev. Hakamata notes that suicide is common among old people who don’t just live alone but also live with their families. Although they live with others, they still develop feelings of being neglected and isolated.

In the countryside as well, human relationships have become fractured. For example, farm work is no longer done cooperatively. Children have become fewer, and in these households, children aren’t disciplined. The real meaning is that there is no connection across generations. (Jimonkoryu magazine September 2006, 89–90)

In 2000, Rev. Hakamata organized a meeting called “Thinking about Our Hearts and Lives” at which twenty-eight people attended, including housewives, health professionals and public health officials, members of the social welfare organization, district welfare officers, and priests of his own denomination. Since then, they have organized further such meetings, lectures, and activities in other cities and towns in the region. In 2003, in Fujisato-cho itself, Rev. Hakamata and a group of residents established a café called Yottetamore in the back of the city hall in the lobby of the Three Generations Exchange Center. In this age where Starbucks and other such high-end cafés can be found in practically every rail station and on every corner in the cities, it is a statement about life in this region that there was not even a single café in Fujisato-cho. The Yottetamore café with its modern, yet warm and very inviting ambience, thus provides not only a place to talk about problems but simply to get a good cup of coffee. Rev. Hakamata comments that, “Whoever comes here will find someone who will listen to them carefully. People know that once a week at this place there will be someone that will surely give them some mental support” (ibid., 89). In response to the needs of working men who are only free at night and prefer the atmosphere of a bar to a café, Rev. Hakamata has recently created a ‘business trip’ bar to extend and compliment the Yottetamore café.

In 2004, for the first time in seventeen years, there wasn’t a single suicide in the town. In 2005, there was one person who took their own life, which happened again in 2006. Rev. Hakamata feels that this decline in the suicide rate isn’t because they always talk about the issue at the café, but rather when people have problems, there is always an open window for them. Indeed, the cultural taboos around discussing suicide make it very difficult to confront at the temple during a funeral or memorial service. The café enables Rev. Hakamata to address the issue from a different angle and in a different context that is more amenable to open communication. This is common to some other priests involved in suicide prevention who do their work outside of the environment of the temple. Rev. Hakamata also works outside the temple, because feels he must be careful about over exposing his family to this kind of work and the often irregular hours of offering telephone counselling to the suicidal.

The Association of Priests Grappling with the Suicide Problem that Rev. Hakamata belongs to came together in 2007. At first they worked together on a collaborative letter writing system to those who had sought them out for help. Then they began to expand their work into offering special memorial services to the families of those who had committed suicide and group counseling to these people, who are seen as high risk to follow their loved ones into suicide. The work of these priests represents the best features of the potential for Buddhist chaplaincy in Japan, because they emphasize making an intimate connection with the traumatized while practicing deep listening as a means for the suicidal to discover their own life affirmations and meaning rather than have it be preached to them. The Association also represents the best of the new engaged Buddhist movement in Japan as it brings together priests from many different denominations who engage in collaborative work without regard to doctrinal differences.

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