There are twenty-seven people with me on the bus ride to the Tōjinbō Cliffs. According to a Japanese government white paper published earlier this year one in five will seriously consider suicide in their lifetimes.
I do the math: Five-point-four people on this bus.
Thirty-four-point-eight in every one hundred thousand will go through with it, according to two-thousand and six figures. Over three times as many as back home. There was that thing in north Wales a while back. Wish I could remember.
My legs still ache from an hour of Shikantaza this morning. That’s sitting meditation. I am not used to this climate.
My body is covered in a permanent superskin of sweat. I have to wear a long-sleeved t-shirt to hide a tattoo on my wrist, the letter X.
The Tōjinbō Cliffs are a national monument of scenic beauty, a kilometre of pyroxene andesite which the guidebook says ‘(stand) gallantly against the raging waves of the Sea of Japan’. Think of the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim or Durdle Door near Lulworth. I like that image, standing gallantly against raging waves.
I’m headed to the Tōjinbō Cliffs to meet Yukio Shige, retired police officer, written about by CNN, the BBC and Associated Press, and now by me. On evenings, when the tourists are gone but the waves remain, Yukio Shige walks the Tōjinbō Cliffs looking for people about to jump.
Yukio Shige has saved one hundred and fifty lives. He spends hours talking people through their problems, then further hours contacting their families, finding the people he saves housing and work if he can.
I get off the bus at a tourist pavilion, have a cigarette.
A path has been torn into the scrubland by all those millions of tourists over the hundreds of years of their coming here. I walk it.
Yukio Shige agreed to meet me on the cliffs. We would walk the kilometre with my recorder running and, maybe, I’d get to see him talk somebody out of dying. Unlikely, I think, since it’s a Sunday afternoon. Tourists are here; hundreds of potential Yukio Shiges.
I’m far from Fukui City’s womb heat and noise. I have to zip up my hooded sweatshirt and listen to the roaring, unremitting sea breeze. I’m a country boy who gets deeply uncomfortable outdoors.
Grass gives way to trees, sun to shade. The wind stops but the air stays chill.
On the pebbles in Lyme Regis or looking out on the glass flat water between Weymouth and Portland there would be sea birds. Even inland, with a storm out at sea, they would be overhead. Here there are Cicadas. They start singing in early Spring and don’t stop until summer ends. They provide an aural background to my day, they keep me awake at night, when every window in my flat is open. In many Asian cultures they are symbols of renewal and good fortune.
When I lived in Norwich the nights sounded like sirens and the plumbing exhaling, distant motorcycles on the A352 growing up in Sherborne. Here at night, on my balcony, cigarettes, the city sounds like a radio in another room searching for a tuning.
The woodland ends and opens onto the Tōjinbō Cliffs. Everything stands in awe of them. Even the Cicadas fade out.
I walk right up to the edge. Straight line, directly forward. It’s not that far down. Barely twenty-five meters.
Yukio Shige and I were meeting near the Sandan Rocks. South of me, according to the map. The cliffs face West, towards the setting sun, explaining their popularity. Left, I have to go left to go South.
I look for pairs of shoes by the cliff-side. I imagine that a person would take off their shoes if were to jump.
It occurs to me that the fall wouldn’t be sufficient to kill. People survive the sixty-seven meter drop from Golden Gate bridge (only five percent, but it’s possible, then there are sharks.) Hitting rocks on the way down, ragdoll physics, spending your last second as Newton’s plaything, even that would be risky. In a sense.
I have with me a print-out of suicide methods in both the US and England-slash-Wales. The broadest strokes were predictable, but down in the one-percents there were some surprises. Fifty percent of American suicides involved a firearm, with men twenty-percent more likely to go that way. In England-slash-Wales hanging and suffocation were the preferred method. Cutting was very low down both lists, two and three percent respectively. Drowning was one percent for the US and four for the old country. I wonder why this is. Iron-age, pre-Roman Celts, they had their sacred springs and holy wells, thresholds between the living and the dead, depositories for sacrifices, and it’s possible, maybe, that this association still exists.
Half a percent set themselves on fire.
You would drown. Hard to say how deep the blue-black-green water is, but the strong currents are undeniable. You’d be in good company: Virginia Woolfe, Spalding Gray, Norman Jaffe, Lao She.
Osamu Dazai- his book No Longer Human is one of the most widely read books of the twentieth century here. Donald Keene’s English translation is in my back pocket. He and his mistress Tomie Yamazaki drowned themselves in the rain-swollen Tamagawa Canal.
You would have to drown, jumping from the Tōjinbō cliffs.
On the whole they are less than impressive. Too similar to the Jurassic coast back home. The Oregon coast, that’s truly beautiful- flat panes of sand stretched out to sea from mile-high black cliffs.
The waves at the Rosuku Rocks are enough to arrest me for a moment. They rage, pushed by an inshore breeze, fulfilling the tourist guide’s promise.
Half way to the Sandan rocks (another map tells me so). Time to sit down.
Back at the bus depot I treated myself to a thousand yen bento. I get it out of my backpack and sit with my legs crossed, facing the ocean. The grass here is dead or dying, also disappointing to me.
On the bus ride over I read No Longer Human. Here I watch the waves.
Lunch is Sushizume, lit. ‘packed sushi’. I didn’t get to pick what went in, so there’s a chance that there could be meat that I would have to pick out. Itadakimasu!
Haven’t slept in a while. Three days maybe? Is it three? Three days?
I lay down in the sun’s yellow stare. People will come past but that’s not important. I manage to eat a single California roll.
There is the ocean, of course, the cliffs, dry yellow brown grass, myself sat on same, then the path, then more grass, then a line of trees. Between me and the trees is a large blue sign with no English translation.
Since the Tōjinbō Cliffs are not necessarily fatal I am reminded of Quantum Suicide. It’s an attempt to distinguish between the Copenhagen and Everett-Many-Worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics.
Say that somebody jumps from, say, the Tōjinbō Cliffs and they have exactly fifty-fifty chance of living or dying.
In the Copenhagen interpretation the predictable occurs. The subject lives or dies. In the Everett-Many-Worlds interpretation the universe splits into two: in one universe the subject lives, in another he dies.
(Men successfully commit suicide four times as often as women in most countries, so the use of the masculine pronoun can be justified)
Imagine trillions of identical suicide attempts from Tōjinbō cliffs. Half die in the first attempt, another half are saved by luck or Yukio Shige. Some return again and another half is wiped out, another half lives.
But somewhere in the multiverse is the you for whom the coin always comes up heads. Somewhere you will live and keep living, even if it’s for one more second than in the next universe over Maybe the coin comes up heads enough that you can outrun death, lasting long enough for a panacea to be found. Quantum Suicide leads inevitably to Quantum Immortality, maybe not in all worlds, but in some, for some people.
Hugh Everett III, originator of the Many-Worlds interpretation, died suddenly, aged fifty-one. Lifetime of drinking and smoking heavily. The former passively caused the lung cancer that killed his wife, Nancy.
Their daughter, Elizabeth, lifelong sufferer of schizophrenia, took her own life, stating in her note that she was on her way to a parallel world to be with her father. Mark Everett, singer with the band Eels, you’ll probably know them, found his father dead and is the last surviving member of his family in his universe.
Dozing off now. Bento’s getting warm, probably. Doesn’t matter. It’s supposed to be served at room temperature.
I can’t sleep anywhere but my bed, and even then it’s not guaranteed. Instead of passing into unconsciousness the weight around my eyes lifts and there is a sensation like falling.
Bursts of it, this feeling. Like sudden acceleration then a smooth stop, always travelling downwards, the slow-drip of brain chemistry. Dopamine probably.
Open my eyes long enough to eat another California roll. It’s barely satisfying, but the filling, just cucumber, nori and nigiri, goes down easy and is guaranteed cruelty free.
I have enough spare cognition to squirt the soy sauce into a shallow reservoir and unwrap the chopsticks.
Wasabi I cannot do. Mustard is the same. Can’t even eat rarebit because the recipe requires a half teaspoon of Coleman’s. My national dish denied to me.
Andrew Boorde in his Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge (1542): “I am a Welshman, I do love caws pobi- good roasted cheese.”
Would the class like to hear about Wales? I teach English-as-a-second-language, high school level, that’s how I’m supporting myself.
Wales would just confuse them. Class, your sensei is not British, as previously stated, but I trace my line from the Ordovices, the Demetae, the Silures and the Deceangli.
Let me read from the Mabinogion, the Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch and Llyfr Coch Hergest.
No, we’re not the Irish. Oh Celts, certainly. Listen, we have our own hundred letter Thunderword, just like off Finnegan’s Wake: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch.
(James Joyce, like Hugh Everett III, had a schizophrenic daughter. She was analyzed by Carl Jung. After reading Ulysses and pronouncing the elder Joyce similarly-phrenic Jung noted that she and her father were two people heading to the bottom of a river: he was diving and she was falling
Lacan, let’s see if I can remember, said that Joyce’s writing was the, what do you call it? Feminine supplementary jouissance or somesuch that kept him from actual psychosis.
Now there’s a lot of big words to keep us unhappy. Boring bloody Lacan.
Ah, she went out with Samuel Beckett. Lucia Joyce, the schizophrenic. Anna Livia Plurabelle Joyce her name was. Supposed to have been her father’s muse for the Wake, collaborator even.)
What else does your Sensei know, class? There’s the Battle of the Trees- Gwydion has every tree in the forest shaking off their Cicadas and following him into battle.
Oh! Dylan Thomas! John Cale too! Twin bursts of satori, almost enough to wake me.
Dylan Thomas now, not a suicide, death by alcohol poisoning. The Temperance movement was big in Wales, nineteenth century. New York city, Chelsea Hotel resident, like Cale.
Your Sensei wants to read a bit from a poem, relevant to our field trip here. It’s from Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:
(Cale of course- permit your Sensei a digression here class- covered Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, as did Jeff Buckley, who died drowning as I recall. Minor fall and all that. Cale set Do Not Go Gentle to music. He’s still alive I think.)
(Oh yes, and John Berryman, only person present when Thomas offed, jumped from the Washington Avenue Bridge, a mere twenty-three meters clear from the water)
-Awake. That I can still sleep is a good sign.
I am woken by a man, Japanese, a meter from me. He has come better prepared than I- sturdy boots, backpack, carbon-fibre cane to walk with. Older than me but not old, shaved head, on the paunchy side.
He asks if I’m alright in English.
At some point I had repositioned myself so that I was sitting upright, back resting against the sign, my legs draped over the path.
I reply that I am alright, in Japanese.
I was very worried, he tells me, English again. People come here to die.
Do they not jump? is the best I can come up with, overly formal.
Yes, often. Some have done it in the woods with rope or poison.
There are Japanese websites that give instruction on making Hydrogen Cyanide from household items. It has been touted as a precursor to animo acids, and therefore all organic life. It’s better known as Zyklon B.
The Japanese man helps me up. After he does I bow neatly and dust myself off.
Stephen, I say.
Hiro, he says, bows.
Hiro Stephen, Stephen Hiro.
False names during transitory friendships are a habit I haven’t broken.
Are you here to look at the cliffs Stephen-san?
He’s changed to speaking in English.
Hai. I am also meeting someone.
No. Somebody to write about. Perhaps you have heard of him. Yukio Shige.
There is still the wind and the cold. Still cicadas. Still porcelain explosions of surf against the rocks.
Yes. I have heard of him. He helps people who are worried.
That’s right. I am afraid that I may be late for our meeting.
Oh. Very sorry please. Do not let me keep you.
Quite alright. Before I go I wonder if you could tell me what is written on this sign. I’m afraid I cannot read Kanji.
Ah. It says ‘The consequences of jumping are fatal and tragic. Please seek the help of others. There is always hope’. Then there are numbers to call for different problems. Debt, family, when one of your family dies.
Thankyou Hiro-san. Good day to you.
Good day to you too Stephen-san
I turn and walk. The path is narrower here. Barely five meters from the cliff’s edge to the tree-line. Up ahead it widens and there are flocks of tourists in bright wind-breakers.
Past there is the Sandan rocks and my meeting with Yukio Shige. I have another cigarette right here. Like it’ll wake me up.
Feet moving fast behind me.
Stephen-san! May I take a moment more of your time?
He reaches into his backpack and pulls out a perfect ten-thousand yen melon. I had seen, and marvelled at, these in Shibuya department stores. They are intended as gifts for weddings and graduations.
Hiro bows and lowers his eyes.
Is it true that you intend to speak with Yukio-sama?
Yes, I tell him, I have an interview scheduled for forty-five minutes ago.
He holds the perfect melon out to me in its tasteful black lacquer box.
I also was headed to see him. I am sorry. I intended to give him this gift for Obon but to my shame I do not feel that I can go. Please take this gift to him with the compliments of Matsubara Hiro. He will know who I am.
I take the perfect melon from him and tell him that I will make sure that Yukio Shige receives it.
Thankyou, he says, it is very important that I am able to thank him in the proper way.
I carry the thing with me, careful around it, as I walk the remaining two-hundred meters to the meeting point.
The Sandan rocks are beautiful. The basalt has formed an almost perfect cube attached to the land by a bridge of haphazard geometric forms.
The thin columns of andesite have formed what look like the pipes of a vast and strange church organ. An alien instrument of devotion.
Yukio Shige is there, on the spit of land that bleeds into the rocks. He’s a hundred meters off. It’s him. I’ve seen pictures.
I ready my voice recorder. I check the batteries are charged. They’re charged. Got a pen and paper. Can’t do shorthand.
Bored and tired and exiled, I walk the last hundred meters.
I could be back home, walking the coasts of Dorset, Devon, Camarthen, Norfolk, wherever. Instead, in this small facet of everything, this universe, I am here.
My legs still ache. My eyes are sore and the surrounding flesh blackening and dying. By their thousands the neurons in my head, the whole of everything, are flickering out like the streetlights just before dawn.
This isn’t important. None of this is about me.