JCL Network Partner Emba Allison works as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in local schools in Saitama, Japan. In addition to witnessing to the people she encounters daily through this work, Emba has been given a heart to support those in Japan who suffer from mental health problems. Emba shares about her calling to this high priority area:

“Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. One Japanese person attempts suicide every 15 minutes. There are 230,000 people in hospital with mental health-related illness. Many on the edge of despair in Japan paradoxically seek out beautiful places to end their lives, such as the stunning Sandanbeki cliffs along the magnificent coastline of Shirahama town, Wakayama Prefecture in the Kansai region of Japan.”

I first heard these shocking details at a Reaching Japanese for Christ (RJC) conference in Seattle, USA in February 2013. Pastor Yoichi Fujiyabu was the keynote speaker at the conference, which had the theme of ‘Hope for the Japanese Community.’ Pastor Fujiyabu was pastoring the small Shirahama Baptist Church, a short drive from the beautiful Sandanbeki Cliffs where he felt God prompting him to help those who came to jump from the cliffs so near to his church.

He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power!    Psalm 147:3-5

“Presence is so important”

Some of the people that Pastor Fujiyabu approached on the cliffs were willing to talk to him. Others had nothing to say, so he would sit with them on the cliffs’ edge, sometimes for hours. At the conference, he said that “Presence is so important”. Some of those in despair had not spoken to anyone for a long time. They were deeply lonely, overwhelmed by lives that had unravelled in debt or broken relationships. Many had travelled far from home to come to these cliffs, at the end of hope, where the raging waters below seemed like the only solace from despair.

As Pastor Fujiyabu shared this desperate and dramatic picture of mental health in Japan, God moved my heart deeply. I had no idea of this side of life in Japan. Having close friends who had struggled with depression, and having gone through it myself, I could only imagine the anguish many Japanese experienced.

Seeking God’s Guidance

In 2011, at the end of a ministry apprenticeship year at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London (the same church where I became a Christian), God had convicted my heart to serve in Japan. However, I had never been there and had no interest in going. But when I attended that RJC conference in 2013 to seek God’s guidance, he spoke to me clearly through Pastor Fujiyabu’s message: “This is how you can be useful for me in Japan.” I did not exactly know how I could be useful, but it was evident that God’s heart broke for the thousands of Japanese who committed suicide every year. In December of that same year, I flew to Japan on a vision trip to seek out Pastor Fujiyabu in Shirahama and see firsthand how God was using him in his community and along the Sandanbeki Cliffs.

Busy cooking a meal for the children’s Christmas Eve party in the Shirahama Baptist Church kitchen were some of the people that God had rescued through Pastor Fujiyabu’s ministry. Several of them who lived in community at the church were now followers of Christ. Meeting them, full of life and joy, was sweet beyond words.

How to be Helpful?

One question I wanted to ask Pastor Fujiyabu was how someone like me, a foreigner (originally from Kenya), could be useful in serving those struggling with depression in Japan. His answer was surprising: “It is because you are a foreigner that Japanese people would be willing to share their struggles with you” he said. Japanese relationships are governed by harmony, not making trouble for others. Some of my Japanese friends have told me that sharing your troubles with others, even sometimes with family and friends, is viewed as troubling them. However, non-Japanese are not under the same rules and so there is more freedom to share and less fear of being judged.

“Suicide prevention is for everyone”

In January 2019, it was wonderful to meet Pastor Fujiyabu again, this time in Tokyo, at a screening of the newly released documentary movie, ‘A Step Forward’, about his work in Shirahama. Through efforts by non-profit organizations such as Pastor Fujiyabu’s ‘Shirahama Rescue Network’, as well as the Japanese government, members of whom I have made connections with, the suicide rate in Japan has decreased somewhat in recent years. However, mental health in Japan remains a top concern for the government and according to recent statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide among Japanese children (elementary to high school age) is the highest in the world, and suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-29.

Through my job as an Assistant Language Teacher over the last three years, I have encountered teachers struggling with mental health issues (often due to the pressures of the job) as well as students (often due to bullying, or a difficult home life). Lifting up these people in prayer to the God who is able to heal and deliver is one way of bringing hope. Ministering to Japanese colleagues, students and friends through listening as they share their struggles is another simple but important way to help.

Expressing Emotions

Mrs. Matsumoto, a junior high school teacher that I got to know well, recently shared with me about her teenage daughter’s battle with depression. Her daughter stopped going to school and barely left her room. Both mother and daughter struggled with understanding depression, articulating emotions (hard for many Japanese to do) and finding help. Mrs. Matsumoto and I were able to meet and talk several times about how to help her daughter, and I introduced her to ‘How I Got Here’ (HIGH) cards: conversation cards designed to help articulate emotions.

Suicide among Japanese children (elementary to high school age) is the highest in the world, and suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-29

The HIGH cards were developed by Mark and Jenn Bello, a Californian couple, who have served in Japan for six years following God’s call for them to help lower Japan’s high suicide rate. In August 2018, the Bellos and I met with Dr. Motohashi, the director of the government’s ‘Japan Support Center for Suicide Countermeasures (JSSC)’, to present the HIGH cards for the government’s consideration in their suicide prevention initiatives. Dr. Motohashi’s motto is; “suicide prevention is for everyone” (i.e. not only professionals). We can all play a part, and the HIGH cards, in English and Japanese, are a simple tool that anyone can use with a person who needs help. They are available in several ways: as a free downloadable app, on Amazon Japan, and as free packs that I can give to anyone who is interested (please contact JCL if you wish to be put in touch).

Emmanuel, the God who came to save the lost and heal the broken-hearted, is at work in Japan. Pray with us that he would work powerfully through his Church in Japan to bring hope and light for those on the edge of hope.

Emba Allison, JCL Network Partner