As Japan suicides drop, survivor shares story to save others

TOKYO (AP) — It's not that he wanted to die. Rather, Kazuo Sawato says, he couldn't bear his life anymore. The 31-year-old Japanese office worker ran to the roof's edge and jumped.

"I just wanted to free myself from all the suffering," he said in an interview, 12 years after that August afternoon in 2005. "I felt as if I was getting endless barrages of punches, or gasping for air every second with my face being pushed into the water. I thought I just couldn't take it anymore."

He landed on his legs, and initially regretted surviving. Now 42, Sawato says he is glad to be alive and wants to share his journey back to the world of the living with others who struggle under the societal pressure that make Japan one of the world's most suicide-prone societies.

Suicide in Japan surged in 1998, a year after a major brokerage went bankrupt, triggering an economic crisis. Only in 2010 did the number of suicides start coming down, following a series of preventive measures started by the government in 2006 — one year after Sawato's attempt.

Still, the suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000 people remains high. Recent surveys estimate that more than half a million people tried to kill themselves over the past year, while one in four people considered it.

Sawato said he felt pressured to enter a top university and join the office-working elite. He pursued the model, apparently too hard. Not missing a single day of work for three years, he developed depression from overworking.

He finally took a four-month sick leave after his marriage fell apart, but returned to work too early, retreating to another sick leave that shattered his self-confidence. He thought he was not supposed to show weakness, and feared becoming a societal dropout.

"I felt worthless, even less than trash," he said. "Gradually I was caught up in a desire to stop living."

He started studying suicide methods. He walked on the edge of a station platform and imagined jumping in front of a train. He tried unsuccessfully to strangle himself with a necktie. He researched apartment buildings ahead of his jump in 2005.

The suicidal thoughts didn't vanish easily. His encounter with two younger roommates during two months in a hospital reminded him that he was not alone. Perhaps it was okay to slow down and take a break, he thought.

Within two years he developed ulcerative colitis, requiring the removal of his colon and a three-month hospital stay. It was a setback, but then his own body helped him overcome his renewed depression.

About six months after the operation, his toilet visits dramatically decreased, because part of his small intestine was beginning to function as the colon. "I kept thinking about death, but my body was trying to live and it wanted to live," he said.

Then one day on a train back from a follow-up hospital visit, he received profuse thanks from an elderly woman for offering her his seat. That touched his heart, restoring his self-esteem.

Sawato is off anti-depression medication. He wants to be living proof and let his younger peers know that they are not the only ones following their life paths.

"If you want to die, it's okay to say so," he said. "When I said I wanted to die, what I really meant was life was too painful. Deep down in my heart I wanted to live, and I'm sure that's true of everyone."


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