By Akio Matsumura
The United States and Japan are both plagued by suicide. Many people are taking their own lives out of a sense of isolation and loneliness. Although the circumstances for the two cases are distinct, the challenge to both countries–overcoming complacency–is the same.
A few weeks ago someone called my cell phone and started speaking to me in Japanese. I answered in Japanese but knew it was foreigner’s voice. The person on the other end said he had studied Japanese for five years at a high school in Australia. We continued talking, mixing Japanese and English, and laughed. This short conversation let me forget a moment that I was talking to a person with no arms or legs. It was Mr. Nick Vujicic. On the phone, we planned to meet at his friend’s apartment in Central Park West. He arrived, rolled his wheelchair into the lobby, and we chose a quiet, private place to chat. His staff lifted him out of the wheel chair and into a chair at the table. They placed his iPhone before him and left, leaving us alone to meet. I wondered how Nick would let his staff know when our meeting ended.
After we spoke for an hour and a half, he slid his nose across the screen of the iPhone to unlock it. He called his staff and asked them to bring a camera so that we could take a photograph together. I told Nick I was amazed to see him handle the phone so fluidly. I cannot use one, even with two hands. He smiled kindly and with self-confidence. I am sure he was only able to do this through tireless practice, as he has conquered so many other difficulties.
During our talk we covered several items, but mainly focused on the types of conflicts I predict will continue through the rest of the century. Nick showed keen interest in the story of the Oxford conference, where spiritual and parliamentary leaders stayed in the student dormitories, sharing one bathroom per room, where Jewish, Muslims, Christians, other religious denominations and parliamentarians were living together. All participants worked to transcend their own traditional barriers. Nick clearly understood the rationale to transcend barriers because his life has been spent successfully overcoming innumerable challenges. I am convinced by his belief that a positive approach leads the way to a meaningful life. There is no wonder as to how he has encouraged so many young people, particularly those who’ve lost their confidence in their life.
Nick then asked me of my concerns about my country, Japan, where I have not lived for 36 years, and where he visited several times. I am most worried by Japan’s extremely high suicide rates. The smile left Nick’s face when we took up this matter. He persistently asked what caused such extreme rates in Japan.
More than 30,000 people committed suicide in Japan in the last year—for the twelfth straight year. This does not count who those who died at the hospital after or failed in their attempt. Some people suggest an even larger figure of 100,000 suicides a year. When I occasionally visit Japan, I ask many people why this problem plagues Japan, and what is being done to stop it. No one answers me seriously. I have the impression that they think there is nothing they can do to solve or help the issue. Like Nick, I have been puzzled for a few years on why Japan’s people have not been able to take this problem more seriously.
America has a similar problem. In this blog I often stress that war takes a different toll on a society than other social and economic issues. Its effect is unique, disastrous, and extends across generations. One major effect is high suicide rates among veterans.
In late October, Mr. Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, wrote “The Way We Treat Our Troops.” His report of suicide and death among veterans is a must-read. It shows the debilitating effects our wars abroad are taking on our troops back at home.
It shocked to me to learn the story of the death of Sgt. First Class Lance Vogeler, a 29 year old who was killed a few weeks ago while serving in the Army in his twelfth combat tour—four in Iraq and eight in Afghanistan. Multiple tours—three, four, five—are the norm. And it is no surprise that veterans of the two wars are much more likely to commit suicide, or die by other means, than people the same age with no military service. “They were twice as likely,” Mr. Glantz reported, “to die in a vehicle accident, and five-and-a-half times as likely to die in a motorcycle accident.”
I would like to make it clear that the Japanese and Americans commit suicide under different political and social circumstances. Yet the social responsibility to respond this critical issue is the same. The struggle and sense of loss for each family is the same, after all, and the reason the person chooses to die is the same—we are unsympathetic to their incredible loneliness and desperation. As a society we do not know how to include our members who have been through such extraordinary experiences.
Our situation reminds me of the case of the frog in a pot of water. If we raise the temperature very slowly, the frog fails to notice the increase in heat. The frog does not recognize the water’s alarming temperature and eventually dies.
Everyday on television we see death through coverage of wars, genocide, tribal conflicts, terrorism, drug violence, and violent movies. We become complacent in the face of tragedy and blind to the meaning of the life of the human and animal. Many politicians and religious leaders have forgotten their mission to take care of their weakest members and show the passion for each life. Nick Vujicic impressed me with his relentless optimism and vitality in the face of so many struggles. That exuberance is the shock needed to escape the complacency that weakens our societies.
Our pot has already come to a roaring boil—will we, like the frog, fail to notice before it is too late?