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Suicides stalk Japan disaster zone

Tarukawa's son Kazuya found his father hanged by a rope from a tree above his vegetable field. -AFP

Mon, Aug 22, 2011

SUKAGAWA, Japan - When Japanese farmer Hisashi Tarukawa watched the local nuclear plant blow up on television, he uttered a sentence that will forever chill his family: "Oh, no. It's over."

Within days, the radioactive cloud from the Fukushima plant had forced authorities to ban some farm produce in Fukushima, where the 64-year-old had been growing rice and vegetables all his life.

The next morning before dawn, on March 24, Tarukawa's son Kazuya found his father hanged by a rope from a tree above his vegetable field.

"I rushed to the tree and talked to my dad, but his body was already cold," recalled grief-stricken Kazuya, 36, speaking at the family farm in Sukagawa, 60 kilometres from the crippled atomic plant.

Tarukawa, a father of three, left no letter to explain why he took his life, but his bereaved family says he didn't need to.

"I believe his suicide was an act of protest, like seppuku," said Kazuya, referring to the ritualised form of suicide once practised by Japan's samurai knights, known in the West also as harakiri.

His family says Tarukawa had often spoken about the horror of radiation since he attended an annual ceremony in Hiroshima 23 years ago to mourn victims of the 1945 atomic bomb attack on the western Japanese city.

"I don't want his death to have been in vain," said Kazuya, vowing to sue the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), both for the financial and the emotional damages to their family.

The world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl 25 years ago was triggered by the powerful March 11 seabed quake and the massive tsunami it spawned, which took more than 20,000 lives along the Pacific coast.

TEPCO has argued that the scale of the tectonic disaster could not have been foreseen. Critics say the utility ignored expert advice on just such a seismic threat while it assured the public that atomic power is safe.

Fear and anger have grown in Japan, nowhere more than in the Fukushima region, where tens of thousands have had to flee their homes and where farmers, fishermen, hotel owners and others have lost their livelihoods.

Hisashi's widow Mitsuyo recalled how her late husband was at first shocked when the quake destroyed his shed and warehouse, and how his sadness gave way to panic as the severity of the atomic disaster came into focus.

"My husband was a strong man, but he gave in to the radiation," the 61-year-old woman said quietly, a slight tremor in her voice, as she stood before her husband's portrait on the Buddhist family altar.

"I was so sad and I felt such deep regret, but if he is in heaven and at peace now, I would accept that," she said.

-'Heaven and hell'-

The tragedy in the Turakawa family home is not an isolated case. Japan's government says that in June alone at least 16 people, mostly in their 50s and 60s, killed themselves because of despair over the triple calamity of the quake, tsunami and nuclear disasters.

The numbers have heightened concern over a social scourge that was already a perennial problem in pre-disaster Japan. Every year more than 30,000 people take their lives in Japan, a rate lower only than in some ex-Soviet countries.

Experts fear that the monumental grief brought to Japan on March 11 will worsen the grim statistic as the hopelessness of life in crowded evacuation centres and temporary homes takes its emotional toll.

According to a local media report, one 93-year-old evacuee with a disability in Fukushima killed herself in June, explaining in a suicide note to her family: "I would only slow you down. I will evacuate to the grave."

Almost half a year on from the quake, the number of refugees stands above 87,000, including people from a 20-kilometre no-go zone around the radiation-leaking nuclear plant, according to Cabinet Office figures.

Experts say many survivors are haunted by guilt over having lived while others died, or because they were unable to save loved ones - feelings of complex grief that they say can spiral into chronic depression.

"Not so many people think of killing themselves shortly after such a massive disaster, because they feel grateful to have survived," said Hisao Sato, head of Kumo No Ito, a suicide prevention and counselling group.

"But as time goes by, people start to consider suicide as they face the reality, lose momentum and feel tired and discarded, while support from the outside diminishes. You can't live on hope alone."

Sato, who fears suicide rates will rise, has been trying to help with monthly visits to counsel survivors in the tsunami-hit city of Kamaishi.

Japan's government has said it is considering providing mental health care for victims who may be isolated in temporary housing and shelters.

But psychiatrists warn that such programmes alone won't be effective unless victims are also given comprehensive and practical support, including financial aid and help with finding new jobs and homes.

"Suicides do not decline only with mental health support," said Shinji Yukita, a psychiatrist and deputy director of the Saitama Cooperative Hospital in a neighbourhood north of Tokyo that is home to many evacuees.

"Mental care can work when victims already have fundamental life support and physical medical care," Yukita said.

Toshihiro Fujiwara, an official of the Iwate Suicide Prevention Centre, agrees: "This disaster was too big to be handled with ordinary support. We have to back victims in a multi-layered, comprehensive way."

One of the survivors, Tsukasa Kanno, 59, says the toll of the disaster has weighed heavily on his town, Kamaishi, where more than 1,200 people were reported dead or missing near the coast.

"I lost my house and my shops, but I was happy because all my family members survived," Kanno said. "But we have gradually started thinking about what's going to happen to us. I have felt burnt out, I couldn't see the future."

Kanno said that, most worryingly, a gulf has opened between some people in the town who lost everything, and others whose lives and homes were spared. "It's as if heaven and hell exist in the same community."

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