When Toyama barber Kenji Takebe talks with customers while cutting their hair, it may sound like the usual chitchat heard at barber shops, but it's not.
"How've you been lately?" Takebe, 64, asks as he works his scissors.
"Work's busy. My mind can't rest."
Little by little, the customer starts to open up, as alarms go off in Takebe's mind.
Barbers in this city of about 400,000 residents in Toyama Prefecture are being trained as "gatekeepers," since everyone in town visits one. Takebe took a course two years ago, and his shop was certified as a member of a 206-shop association to prevent suicides.
More municipalities are training gatekeepers, who look for subtle signs and listen to people's concerns in an attempt to reduce the number of suicides, which continues to exceed 30,000 a year in Japan.
In Takebe's gatekeeper course, during the two hours or so of training, a clinical psychologist taught him how to listen attentively. The basic approach is to "go with the other person's pace and show empathy while you listen."
He reconsidered how he used to only try and cheer up his customers all the time, so he tried to just listen while giving verbal indicators that he was doing so.
Heavy workloads, family problems, unemployment ... Gradually, Takebe had more customers discussing their concerns with him.
One male customer in his 60s revealed, "My friend whose wife died in an accident is sulking about at home."
Takebe offered some advice on attentive listening. The two men breathed sighs of relief recently when the friend started to calm down.
"I'm happy if they'll just talk to me when they're troubled to bring them some relief," Takebe said.
He keeps the city's "Consultation Counter Introduction Guide" in the waiting room to direct people to the government's offices.
Last year, the number of suicides in Tokyo's Adachi Ward dropped by more than 20 percent over the previous year. Adachi hopes all its ward office personnel will take gatekeeper training so they can help troubled people coming to the office for various consultations.
Last year, Hideo Nishizawa, 49, who works in the National Health Insurance Division, was told by a male ward resident that he "cannot pay for insurance." When Nishizawa carefully asked about the man's household finances, he was told that he was being hounded to repay consumer loans.
Nishizawa then told him about the Ward Consumer Center. When the man visited Nishizawa's desk again at the end of the year, he said, "I straightened out my finances and it looks like I can pay for the insurance a little at a time."
Yuko Baba, who handles suicide prevention as the Mind and Life Support Division Director, stresses that "leading people to the appropriate institution is essential."
For the past two years, the city of Kobe has given gatekeeper training to municipal employees as well as social workers, child welfare workers and people in nursing care such as home helpers. Training also began for elementary and junior high school teachers in January, where an expert on caring for children in puberty talked with the trainees.
"We come in contact with children as part of our daily routine," said one school nurse in her 40s. "I felt like by paying attention, we might be able to save lives."
Gatekeepers are regular people in workplaces and local communities. Municipalities began conducting training in 2007 after Japan incorporated the gatekeeper program into its guidelines on general measures to prevent suicide. Gatekeeper, abbreviated as "GK" in Japan, was employed in all 47 prefectures in the catchphrase "GKB47," parodying the popular idol group AKB48 in an anti-suicide campaign by the government. But the government withdrew it after a string of criticism, including comments such as, "Don't ridicule people dying!"
Some have also pointed out that the government has been slow to arrange "connections" for consultations on mental health and hardship.
Yasuyuki Shimizu heads the Suicide Prevention Support Center Lifelink, an NPO that helps prevent suicides in Adachi Ward.
"It is commendable that they've trained gatekeepers possessing a certain amount of knowledge and skill," Shimizu said. "However, getting close to a person with problems is no easy matter. We need to set up shelters and hotlines that gatekeepers will feel comfortable linking up with."
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