Japan's Future: Jobless, Homeless ... Hopeless?

Retired Japanese policeman Yukio Shige dedicated four decades to keeping people from harming others. Now he's part of a patrol looking for people who want to harm themselves.

Shige, who retired in 2004, has been volunteering most of his days to patrol the stark, stone walls of the Tojinbo Cliffs in the northern part of central Japan for people who're considering jumping off the 82-foot cliffs and convince them to reconsider the decision to end their lives.

"More than 150 people try to jump each year," Shige, 65, said. "About 30 of them die and the rest of them survive but many of those who survive are seriously injured."

Shige said he has rescued at least 15 people this year, with about half of them showing up at the cliff and saying they had just been fired from their jobs and decided to end their lives.

"Those people usually have a will to live and to work," he said. "I have found help, a temporary place to live and even job prospects for all those people, but there is only so much I can do by myself."

At the root at Shige's anxiety are Japan's more than 190,000 temporary or contract workers who have lost their jobs in the past six months. As the world economy tumbles, even corporate giants like Toyota and Sony have been forced to slash jobs and costs to maintain their balance sheets. The sudden shift in the economy almost immediately resulted in the loss of jobs and, for some workers, even a loss of housing.

"The number of homeless people has been rising in our district," said Kuniko Karasawa of Tokyo's Shinjuku City Office, which provides assistance to homeless people. The office has been flooded by people from across Japan looking for help.

Hideki Matsuhashi is one of them.

Matsuhashi never felt more happy than the day he found a single available space in a temporary homeless shelter. "I thought luck was finally on my side," said Matsuhashi, 37, a contract worker who was laid off early this year.

A native of Akita in northern Japan, Matsuhashi was working at a factory in Aichi in western Japan making air filters for Toyota cars. "I moved to the west after I got divorced," Matsuhashi said. "I like cars so I thought it was cool to have a job that had something to do with Toyota cars."

Matsuhashi worked in the factory for a little more than three years. "I had a fresh start there. I rebuilt my life as I took this job, I got housing and I started to purchase household items one by one with each paycheck. But I had to leave all of them behind since I had no money and no place to move them to," said Matsuhashi, who has been carrying his belongings in two duffle bags.

All the money Matsuhashi had got him as far as Tokyo. "I lived in the park and on the street for a few weeks but I just could not continue that anymore," he said. "Had I not gotten help from the city shelter that day, I knew what I would have done, I would have killed myself."

Japanese Government Too Slow to Respond?

Such despair comes as no surprise to Karasawa of the Shinjuku City Office.

"Since companies started layoffs last fall, we have been seeing more young people, in their 30s or 40s," Karasawa said. "By the time we open our office at 9:00 a.m., people are lining up outside waiting to see us. But all the shelters in Tokyo are packed and we simply cannot accommodate every person who comes our way."

The Japanese government has earmarked $19 billion to help boost Japan's labor market, including plans to create roughly 500,000 new jobs and to provide assistance for displaced workers.

Karasawa welcomes the news but worries the government may be slow to respond to a jobless situation that continues to deteriorate. "The way many people have lost their jobs recently was so sudden; it is like being hit by a hurricane or an earthquake," Karasawa said. "And the victims of natural disasters need immediate help for survival and that is exactly what those people need, help needs to come today not tomorrow."

Shoji Sano, who publishes The Big Issue Japan, a magazine sold on streets by homeless people, warns that more displaced workers are likely to join their growing ranks.

"We have not seen those people yet," Sano said. "Some people may be living off their savings and staying in places like Internet cafes or cheap inns. But in the next six months or so, they may run out of money and have no choice but to live on the street."

Takuji Yoshitomi, one of the magazine's sales representatives, stands on a street corner in central Tokyo seven days a week where he sells between 15 to 20 copies a day. "I still sleep in a train station at the end of the day," said Yoshitomi, who hopes to find full-time employment in the future. "But when you look at how the economy has collapsed, I do not know when or if I can find a decent job again. I just hope my sales will not suffer as people start to watch their spending."

Aid workers are not the only ones worrying about the future of Japan's jobless. So is retired policeman Shige, who said there were 244 confirmed suicide deaths at the Tojinbo Cliff where he patrols between 1998 and 2008.

More Than 30,000 Suicides a Year

He stressed the need for a system of nationwide assistance for the newly emerged "refugees" in Japan.

Shige said he and roughly 70 other volunteers guard the area in shifts seven days a week. "I try to take one day off but I am always doing something because people just keep showing up," Shige said.

"There are other places across Japan like Tojinbo that are known to draw people who want to commit suicide. Look at Tojinbo, it is a beautiful place. It should not be known for suicide but for its beauty. People should come here to enjoy the magnificent view of the area, not to kill themselves."

More than 30,000 people have committed suicide in Japan each year for 11 straight years. The Japanese Labor Ministry said that translates to an annual loss of $10 billion for the nation's GDP. "That is a huge loss to our society but the real loss, of course, is the loss of lives," Shige said.

He and his volunteers constantly try to walk up and talk to people at the cliff. "Many of them need someone, just one person, to talk to them, to listen to them," Shige said. "You really could save someone through the simple act of listening. You save a life first and then see what to do with that person.

"Politicians need to stop talking about whether or not or how to save those people. While you sit and ponder, you may be losing another life."

The homeless Matsuhashi, who is now receiving training to improve his computer skills, was fortunate enough to get the help he needed when he needed it most. "I already had picked one tree in the park, one that was tall enough to hang myself," Matsuhashi said as he stood in front of the very tree he selected as a place to die. " Luckily, I did not have to use this tree."

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