On World Mental Health Day, 10 October 2021, Koki Ozora tweeted:

 ‘It is estimated that 4.2 million people in Japan suffer from mental illness, 75% of whom are under the age of 25. There are already medical breakdowns, with waiting lists of up to two months for psychosomatic medicine. Suicide is also a serious problem and counselling services are under pressure. It is a mental health crisis. But the measures are not enough. We want to raise awareness.’

Ozora, as a university student, founded the non-profit organisation Anata no Ibasho. Anata means your, so ‘Anata no Ibasho’ translates to ‘Your Ibasho’ or ‘Your Place To Be’. It is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year free and anonymous chat service for young Japanese struggling with loneliness, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Ozora, who suffered from loneliness and depression and even contemplated suicide himself as a teenager, started Anata no Ibasho at the age of 20 in March 2020 in response to an increase in youth suicide in Japan. 

Now a registered service on the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's website, Anata no Ibasho anonymously connects anyone, regardless of age or gender, to volunteer ‘ibasho counsellors’ in Japan and overseas in as little as five seconds.

Anata no Ibasho

Anata no Ibasho has 700 volunteers worldwide; all volunteers are Japanese, and are therefore able to provide culturally relevant support, but because they live in different time zones they are awake and able to reply at all hours. This is vital because most contact is initiated between the hours of 10 PM and 4 AM (local to the texters). The majority of service users are teenage girls or young women who are at risk of domestic violence and sexual abuse. 

Contact is made, and subsequent discussions are held, via anonymous text message – suiting the younger generation who are more comfortable with asking for help via text than with talking on the phone. Chats are triaged, with texts containing keywords such as ‘suicide’, ‘domestic violence’ or ‘sexual abuse’ receiving priority status. Sixty percent of all messages receive a response within five minutes. On average, volunteers spend 40 minutes with each person. For urgent cases such as suicidal behavior, domestic violence, and abuse, the service works with the police, child guidance centers, and other related organizations.

Anata no Ibasho was created in response to an increase in these problems caused by the pandemic. In Japan, young women tend to be the first to lose jobs in trying economic circumstances. With the pandemic, many young women not only lost their jobs, but also their ibasho in the form of their workplace. This exposed them to isolation and domestic violence from fathers and husbands, who had also lost their jobs, and with whom these vulnerable women were living in close quarters often under lockdown conditions.

The uptake for Anata no Ibasho indicates that, for many Japanese, life is painful. This is expressed by the word ikizurasa, which means ‘difficulty of living’ or ‘pain of living’. I was introduced to this word by Dr. Ozawa-de Silva, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Emory University:

‘...it is a term you hear often if you visit Japan, ikizurasa: “It's tough to live”. I think two years ago I was in Hiroshima, right after a conference, in a bookstore. It was just a small bookstore, but there was an entire section on ikizurasa.’

Between 2003 and 2009, Dr. Ozawa-de Silva followed over 40 suicide-related websites in order to study the subjective experiences of website visitors. While the websites were intended as discussion forums offering support to people dealing with loneliness and suicidal ideation, some visitors used them to arrange suicide pacts. Dr. Ozawa-de Silva also interviewed 24 Japanese college students on the topics of suicide, the meaning of  ‘a good death,’ meaning in life, the importance of being needed, and ikigai. 

The results of her research suggest that future suicide is more likely in people who are experiencing mental languishing – a deficit in emotional, social, and psychological wellbeing. This condition is distinct from mental illness, which is defined as a medical health problem that significantly affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people.

Someone experiencing mental languishing struggles to feel happy (emotional wellbeing), be accepted by others (social wellbeing), and feel worthy (psychological wellbeing). Dr. Ozawa-de Silva feels that this is just as detrimental as mental illness – and, unfortunately, is a pervasive problem for many societies around the world. 

Ozawa-de Silva found that suicide website visitors expressed three distinctive types of mental pain or existential angst: severe loneliness, an absence of meaning in life, and the feeling of not being needed by anyone.

Severe Loneliness

Loneliness is an inherent part of being human because we are social animals and feel the need to belong. However, while it is natural for us to occasionally experience loneliness, feeling it acutely for prolonged periods will impact our wellbeing. 

‘My comparative research suggests that loneliness plays a major role both the suicide website visitors and for “ordinary” college students, even when they are not explicitly experiencing loneliness in theireveryday lives. The comments of both the regular suicide website visitors and the college students that I interviewed illustrate how loneliness and the wish for social connection manifest in Japanese society, a society which is always valued interdependence as part of the ontological condition of the human life. This suggests that, in Japan (and possibly elsewhere), loneliness should be examined as a broad social phenomenon that impacts significant proportions of society, affecting people's decisions, values, self-worth, and sense of meaning and life. This includes not only people's cognitive appraisals of their state as lonely, but also their natural wish for social connections, belonging, positive relations, and sociality, as well as the concomitant fear that such needs will not be fulfilled. Loneliness appears to affect both those who are currently experiencing it as well as those who are not experiencing it but live in fear of it.’

An absence of meaning in life

The meaning of life – or the absence of meaning in life – is questioned by Japanese people with the phrase ‘ikiru imi’. This commonly used term literally translates as ‘living meaning,’ with ikiru, being the verb ‘to live’, and imi, indicating ‘meaning’.

Ozawa-de Silva noted that suicide website visitors used the term ‘ikiru imi’ over ‘ikigai’ with questions such as,  “What's the meaning of life?” or,  “What's the point of living?”. 

In her conversations with college students, Ozawa-de Silva noted that ‘ikiru imi’ had the connotation of being a grand question addressing what might be most important in life; it was viewed as being abstract and lofty, evoking philosophical, ideological, and ontological questions. In contrast, ikigai was much more accessible – concrete, small-scale, and relationship-oriented, and therefore much easier to discuss. 

The feeling of not being needed

The third form of mental pain that Ozawa-de Silva kept noticing was a feeling of not being needed by anyone, with suicide website visitors leaving bulletin board comments such as, ‘I don't matter,’ ‘I don't mean anything,’ ‘I am replaceable,’ ‘I'm not needed,’ and, ‘I'm not being needed by anyone.’ Ozawa-de Silva shared with me one comment that highlighted the degree of pain that feelings like these can cause: 

“I remember that one person posted:  ‘If somebody said, she or he needs me, that would be enough. That would be enough for me to keep on living.’”4

This highlights how devastating an impact acute prolonged loneliness can have on emotional wellbeing - an isolation so painful, so needy, and so desperate that it would take simply one little comment by someone to turn it all around. It's profound how simple it could be to satisfy another’s need by simply telling them that they have an essential place in your life. 

In fact, Ozawa-de Silva found that many of her study participants defined their ikigai as ‘being needed by others’, as shown in these comments5 left by them: 

"It is incredibly important to be needed by others...If I'm no longer needed by anyone, there is no meaning in life or reason to keep on living."5

"I think ikigai is very important and that people around me are my ikigai."

"I wonder what my ikigai is? Perhaps my family and my friends. Having someone who is dear to me, something that is small and trivial might be the most important thing. I don't need anything so special."

"Well, it is not anything special, but I would like to be of service to others. Something small like listening to my friends' troubles or doing some helpful things for them."

"Ikigai, I've not thought about ikigai so much, but there are things I need to do. And there are things that I would like to do. Also, being needed is quite important."

Statements like these show the fundamental importance of being needed and having strong social connections. However, I have been challenged on this when discussing ikigai with non-Japanese – specifically, non-Japanese men who were fathers and held positions of influence.

These individuals stated that they were happy with who they were and cared little for the opinions of others; they felt it was unnecessary to feel needed or accepted. I suspect that their social positions have allowed them the luxury of being needed (e.g., by employees and children) without realising it; perhaps these needs have been satisfied for so long, they have forgotten what it feels like to not feel needed. 

Wanting to feel needed doesn't make you weak or less of a person; after all, we are all human beings wanting to be understood, appreciated, loved, and accepted in what can be a confusing and chaotic world.

If you do feel that you are needed and loved, then it is your job to help others feel the same way. It only takes three words. Saying, ‘I need you’ is a way of giving the gift of ikigai to someone you care about – a family member, friend, co-worker, or employee; it can be especially meaningful to share this sentiment with someone you know is struggling and particularly needs to hear it.

This can be a particularly powerful gesture if you say these words when they would least expect them, and/or when you feel a strong sense of their presence – for example, as they quietly go about their chores or daily activities. You don’t have to make a big production, and you may want to reassure them that nothing is wrong. All it takes is calling out their name, looking them in the eyes, and telling them ‘I need you’, or ‘I appreciate having you in my life.’

Alternatively, perhaps you would rather let your actions speak instead. This was something shared with me by Paul Akers, a Japanophile, business owner, and author of the book Banish Sloppiness - How I Fell In Love with Precision While Working in Japan’:

Oh, I love to find people who are seemingly in a lowly position, and maybe no one is paying attention to them, then give them great respect. It just happened to us today, actually. I hope I can compose myself and not cry when I tell you the story. But we have a young man that works for us that just has a really tough life, drugs and all kinds of bad stuff. He just got out of jail and everything, and he can't drive. So he's walking down the street to go to lunch, and my wife sees him walking down the street. I said, “Go get him.” So she went and picked him up, took him to the store, got lunch and brought him back. You know, it's caring about the people that don't have the abundance that we have. That's what it is.’

While the image of buying an employee lunch might not sound significant, Paul who gives second chances to downtrodden and marginalised people who are typically ignored by other business owners knows that it is in these little gestures that you convey the message that you care. The walk to get lunch wasn't just around the corner, but a significant distance, one that you would normally drive. Paul and his wife were expressing to their employee that he mattered to them. They didn’t want him to feel alone. To them he isn’t an outsider defined by his past, but someone worth caring about. They wanted him to feel welcome – a member of their ibasho. 

Telling this story caused Paul to well up; his vulnerability in sharing his emotions is an example that it is the mark of a man not to brush off the importance of others’ feelings, but to show that you care for others. Paul’s ikigai is to treat those less fortunate than him with deep respect because he knows and appreciates how lucky he is:

‘Nick, we're so lucky. You're so lucky you were born in Australia. I’m so lucky I was born in the United States. We were so lucky that everything was prepared for us to succeed. We were born in western countries, democracies, for the most part, that have very little corruption by comparison to most countries. Everything has been prepared for us to succeed. If we don't wake up in the morning with a deep sense of gratitude, we've lost it.’

This is something we can all do: we can wake up with a sense of gratitude and seek to make those around us feel needed and appreciated. At one time or another, life will be painful, and I admire the work of people like Ozora and Paul who through their own vulnerability and pain can find the capacity to show they care for others.

If we all did the same perhaps we could begin to bring down these high numbers of people feeling isolated and cut off from society. We could give them a place to be.