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Chat service lends an ear to the despondent

TOKYO >> Suicides are on the rise among Japanese teens and that worries 21-year-old Koki Ozora, who grew up depressed and lonely.

His nonprofit Anata no Ibasho (A Place for You), run entirely by volunteers, offers a 24-hour online chat service for those seeking a sympathetic ear, promising to answer every request — within five seconds for urgent ones.

The Japanese-­language service has grown since March to 500 volunteers, many living abroad in different time zones, to provide counseling during those hours when the need for suicide prevention runs highest, between 10 p.m. and the break of dawn.

What makes Ozora’s idea work during the pandemic is that it’s all virtual, including training for volunteers. Online volunteer services are rare in Japan.

“This really gives me hope,” Ozora said of the flood of volunteers. “They tell me they just had to do something.”

A Keio University student, Ozora designed the service, which allows more experienced staff to supervise the counseling. Anonymity is protected.

Anata no Ibasho has received more than 15,000 chats asking for help; that’s about 130 a day.

About a third who use the service discuss suicide; others are overwhelmed by childrearing. The goal is to offer a solution within 40 minutes, including referrals to shelters and police.

The chats convey deep pain. Some confess to fears about killing their own children. Some discuss self-hate after being sexually abused by a parent.

Contrary to the stereotype of Japan as a harmonious society, families are increasingly splintered. In Japan, there are about 50 suicides a day, one woman is killed every three days by a partner or former partner and 160,000 cases of child abuse get reported each year, according to government and United Nations data. Several celebrity suicides this year have raised alarm.

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found Japan ranks among the highest in the world for people suffering from feeling isolated.

Counseling through online chats can be a challenge because all you have are words, said volunteer counselor Sumie Uehara. People tend to blame themselves because they’re stuck in a negative spiral.

“You don’t ever negate their feelings or try to solve everything in a hurry. You’re just there to listen, and understand,” she said.

Ozora believes Japan still hasn’t fully grasped the difference between a healthy sense of solitude and loneliness, which can get desperate. He said a high school teacher was the first adult he could trust.

“Without him, I wouldn’t even be around today. It was a miracle I came across him,” said Ozora.

That teacher, Takashi Fujii, said he noticed Ozora never laughed. He told the youth that he cared, and tried to get him engaged in living.

Ozora has begun compiling data from Anata no Ibasho for a research project. He hopes to pursue graduate studies in the United Kingdom, a global leader in addressing loneliness as a public health issue. In 2018, Britain appointed the world’s only Minister for Loneliness.

But Ozora’s biggest dream is to have his own happy family.

“I never had that,” he said.

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