“Where then is my hope—who can see any hope for me?” Job 17:15
The train came to an unexpected stop and was shortly followed by the vague announcement: “We regret to inform you that this train has been delayed by a human accident.” While the passengers were annoyed by the sudden inconvenience that likely affected thousands of commuters, no one appeared to be surprised. They all instinctively knew that someone had chosen to take their life by jumping in front of a train. When I first experienced this, I didn’t know which was more shocking… that a person had committed suicide in close proximity to us, or that no one seemed to care. While one life came to a sudden end, life in Japan continued to move on.
Suicide has long been a national issue in Japan as it continues to rank towards the top among countries with high suicide rates. The root causes are many, such as the loss of employment, broken relationships, bullying in school, health issues and financial hardships. In most cases, varying degrees of depression are closely linked with these life calamities. Historically, the incidence of suicide is much higher among men than women in Japan. The high incidence of suicide in Japan may be partly due to a somewhat noble tradition associated with the act of taking one’s own life, particularly in military service. For example, samurai warriors would sometimes commit “seppuku,” using a short sword to avoid dishonor. In WWII, “kamikaze” pilots sacrificed their lives by crashing their planes into enemy ships, and ground troops sometimes launched suicidal “banzai” charges in the face of impossible odds for the higher honor of serving their country. In similar fashion, the modern “warrior,” or Japanese businessman, sometimes feels obligated to take his life in the face of personal failure or an exposed company scandal.
In present times, a large wooded area dubiously dubbed “Suicide Forest,” located at the base of Mt. Fuji, has become a popular place for many hurting souls to end their lives in a natural setting. Leaping onto railroad tracks is another venue frequently used in suicide attempts, but Japan Rail (JR) is implementing measures to curtail this trend. Track barriers are now installed in many stations, notices are posted on the platform urging those considering suicide to contact a special hotline and blue-tinted lights, which supposedly have a calming effect on people, are placed strategically throughout stations.
Research reveals that suicide rates in Japan have moderately declined in recent years, but this does not mask the many underlying problems that lead some to such a point of desperation. Several surveys indicate that Japanese in general, when compared to other people groups, have a more pessimistic outlook on life and therefore, lack a meaningful sense of hope. Despite being a country of affluence and safety, many seem to identify with the biblical character Job, who in the depth of his pain piteously cried out to his unsympathetic friends: “Where then is my hope—who can see any hope for me?”
The pain that flows from the inevitable hardships of life can destructively cause us to turn inward and lead to despair. But as the people of God we are called to turn outward in the midst of such challenges and look up to God, the true source of hope. This hope is not grounded in our feelings, the actions of others or altered circumstances, but in God Himself, who seeks our good and acts on our behalf for His eternal purposes. Therefore, we can genuinely pray with the psalmist “Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him.” (Psalm 62:5) In Him, there is hope for the hopeless.