The Miraculous True Tale of a Man Driven to Suicide by the Fear of Death Amidst Mental Illness Caused by 800 Million Yen Debt | FRIDAY DIGITAL

The Miraculous True Tale of a Man Driven to Suicide by the Fear of Death Amidst Mental Illness Caused by 800 Million Yen Debt

Nonfiction writer Kota Ishii approaches the reality of a "society of the elderly without connections.

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In Akita Prefecture, a non-profit organization is working diligently to produce a booklet on suicide prevention.

According to national statistics, 21,881 people lost their lives by suicide in FY2023.

According to national statistics, in the fiscal year 2023, 21,881 people are reported to have died by suicide.


It’s said that many people who commit suicide are struggling with mental illnesses such as depression just before their act. Multiple factors in work and life intertwine, leading to mental distress, the emergence of suicidal thoughts, and ultimately, taking their own lives.

In reality, many of those who have survived say that their minds became filled with suicidal thoughts without them consciously deciding, leaving them feeling there was no other choice but to act.

Japan has been focusing on suicide prevention for the past 20 years. While approaches vary by prefecture, some have significantly reduced suicide rates. One such place is Akita Prefecture.

The suicide prevention efforts conducted here are known as the “Akita Model” and have gained widespread recognition. Why and how has Akita Prefecture been implementing suicide prevention measures? I’d like to illustrate this process based on the depiction of socially isolated elderly individuals in the reportage “Unconnected Elderly” by Kotaro Ishii, published by Ushio Publishing.


The Melancholy of Akita Prefecture


Akita Prefecture, which faces the Sea of Japan, has long been known for its high suicide rate. This can be understood from the fact that it has consistently ranked first in terms of suicides per 100,000 people for 19 consecutive years.

However, until the early 1990s, it was not widely known that Akita had such a high suicide rate. The first person to take notice of this was forensic scientist Naofumi Yoshioka from Akita University. He began investigating after noticing a high number of suicides during autopsy examinations, seeking to uncover the reality behind it.

To convey this fact, Yoshioka sought to widely publicize the results of his suicide research by compiling them into a booklet called “The Melancholy of Akita Prefecture.” He meticulously recorded the high suicide rates and current situation within the prefecture, aiming to promote awareness campaigns.

While the content of the booklet was shocking, it did not receive much attention despite Yoshioka’s efforts. Undeterred, he continued his research and continued distributing new booklets.

The efforts gained attention around the early 2000s.

During this time, nearly a decade had passed since the collapse of the bubble economy, and there was growing concern nationwide about the increase in suicides. The number of suicides, which was in the low 20,000s in the 1980s, had surpassed 30,000 by the late 1990s.

In the midst of these societal changes, local media gradually began reporting on Yoshioka’s research. The number of suicides in Akita, which was in the 300s in the 1980s, had exceeded 500 in some years in the 2000s, highlighting the need for action.

Around the same time, efforts to prevent suicide began in the private sector as well. Leading this initiative was Mr. Hisao Sato.


Mr. Sato was born and raised in northern Akita Prefecture in 1943. His father was a company executive, but when Mr. Sato was in the second grade of elementary school, his body was suddenly found in a shallow part of a river. Although the cause of death was unknown, as he had been in good spirits until the day before, it was only natural to consider it a suicide.

Following his father’s death, the family became impoverished. After graduating from high school, Mr. Sato gave up on attending university and began working at the prefectural office. The turning point came seven years later when he resigned from the prefectural office, switched to working at a private real estate appraisal firm, and eventually started his own real estate business. It seems the entrepreneurial spirit ran in the family, just like his father.

Benefiting from the tailwind of the bubble economy, Mr. Sato’s company grew rapidly. At its peak, it employed 50 people, and its annual revenue soared to 1.5 billion yen. However, everything came crashing down with the collapse of the bubble. From the early 1990s, the business deteriorated, and by 2000, the total debt had reached 800 million yen.


I have no choice but to die.


It was hopeless to keep the company afloat. Mr. Sato made the painful decision to file for bankruptcy. It was some time later that he became mentally ill. His health deteriorated and he began to have thoughts of dying, and he felt suicidal several times a day.

He felt he had no choice but to die. He rushed to a hospital, received treatment, and managed to start on the road to recovery.

At the same time, Mr. Sato learned that a fellow manager had failed in his business and committed suicide while undergoing treatment. Perhaps he had gone through the same process of mental illness as himself. Thinking of this, Mr. Sato couldn’t stand still.

–I want to lose this kind of tragedy. I have to do something.

In 2002, Mr. Sato established the non-profit organization Spider’s Thread out of this desire. He decided to use it as a base for a project to reach out to people suffering from suicidal thoughts.

However, it was not all smooth sailing for Mr. Sato. In the beginning, Sato worked with his own hands to create advertisements, rent meeting space, and set up a system for one-on-one discussions with counselors. He believed it was important to listen to the concerns of the counselors.

It is true that Mr. Sato’s efforts were able to temporarily ease the minds of the counselors. However, no matter how much he studied how to listen and how many hours he spent listening to their problems, the essential problems they were facing would not disappear.

For example, let’s say the client was contemplating suicide due to the bankruptcy of his company. If Mr. Sato listened to him, his stress might be alleviated to some extent. However, it does not eliminate the problems caused by the company’s bankruptcy, such as the disintegration of the family, conflicts with former employees, and repayment of debts. Even if they feel better, the problems are still there.

In order to truly save the clients from suicide, we must not only listen to them but also eliminate the problems they are facing.

I thought so, but there was a limit to what I could do on my own. For example, I had to seek the help of lawyers for debt, schools for children, and hospitals for illnesses. In other words, suicide prevention in the true sense of the word cannot be realized without involving specialists in a variety of fields.

With this in mind, Sato began visiting various specialists in the prefecture and asking for their help in suicide prevention. This later led to the creation of an organization that brought together a wide variety of groups in the prefecture (medical associations, newspaper companies, social welfare organizations, civilian welfare organizations, child welfare committees, NPOs, etc.).

The detailed background and contents of the “Akita Model” will be described in Part 2: Akita Prefecture’s “Four Efforts to Save People in Deep Distress,” in which the number of suicides has been dramatically reduced.

Part 2: Akita Prefecture’s “Four Efforts to Save the Worried” as Suicides Decrease D ramatically

  • Interview, text, and photos Kota Ishii

    Born in Tokyo in 1977. Nonfiction writer. He has reported and written about culture, history, and medicine in Japan and abroad. His books include "Absolute Poverty," "The Body," "The House of 'Demons'," "43 Killing Intent," "Let's Talk about Real Poverty," "Social Map of Disparity and Division," and "Reporto: Who Kills Japanese Language Ability?

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