In the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a group of medical professionals and volunteers set up the Yorisoi Hotline in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima – the three prefectures worst hit by last year’s triple disaster.
The free call support hotline was originally designed to allow victims to speak to someone about the troubles they were facing in a familiar, unintrusive way.
Following March 11, there was a 20 per cent increase in suicide rates across Japan, compared to the year before with Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures having higher suicide rates than Tokyo.
“I know there are many who say ‘there is also a positive voice coming from the disaster affected areas’ but there are also many people who feel that they are in a ‘living hell’ in those areas, too,” explained Tetsuya Matsumoto, a representative of the reconstruction committee team.
“There are many people who feel they cannot talk with their neighbours and acquaintances which is why this 24-hour support hotline is so significant.”
One year on, the Yorisoi Hotline has been such a success it’s become a nation-wide support service, complete with a 90 minute radio show, broadcast four nights a week.
What’s more, the hotline also provides consultations in English, Tagalog, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and Thai and is open to people of all ages.
In a society like Japan’s where homogeneity is king and personal, emotional problems are not discussed, a hotline that openly discusses issues like domestic violence, homosexuality and suicidal thoughts is incredibly forward thinking – and long overdue.
The nightly radio show helps, not only to tell people facing certain issues that ‘you’re not alone’ but also stands to educate the wider public on basic issues other groups of people are facing.
For example, the most recent program on Sexual Minorities began with an explanation of the LGBT movement, providing definitions for words like ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgender’ – words that a lot of Japan’s aging population may never have heard before.
Psychologist, Rika Kayama, wrote in the Mainichi Shimbun that the hotline is a welcome support service for people who are unsure of who best to speak to about their problems.
“I think that the greatest anxiety of people who need help is where to turn for assistance. Furthermore, due to the nature of their problems they often have to visit a number of different professionals, sometimes even being told things like ‘this is not in the range of our expertise’… This may only discourage them from seeking further help.”
While the hotline is only run by volunteers, Kayama worries that advice provided may not be completely “adequate” but like her I think that just knowing there’s something willing to listen is a huge relief in itself.
The issue of “lonely deaths” – people dying in their apartments and not found until weeks later – is increasingly coming into the spotlight in Japan. And although neighbours may not feel “close enough” to check in on each other or discuss issues of financial worries or depression together, perhaps by speaking to someone – even just over the phone – problems such as these which seem to highlight the worrying problem of isolation in Japanese society will slowly disappear.