The stigma of Japan's 'suicide apartments'

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Sendai

image captionThe daughter's photograph is not alongside those of ancestors on the family altar

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and on average nearly 100 people take their own lives every day.

But where those deaths take place has a big impact on families left behind.

In a stuffy apartment in Sendai, the air blue with smoke from cigarettes, a father kneels in prayer.

Lighting incense sticks and ringing a bell before the family altar, an ornate wooden cupboard.

His daughter's photograph is not inside alongside the other ancestors, it is still on the bookshelf.

Putting it there would be a final acceptance that she has gone, that two years ago he found her body in her rented Tokyo flat.

She was only 22 and her father cannot face that yet.

"When I realised she was dead I just could not move and I could not think at all," he says.

"I could not take in what happened. I thought there is really no God in this world at all. That is what I remember from that day."

image captionThis father is suffering not just bereavement, but financial hardship too

Only the father, and his former wife, the young woman's mother, know their daughter took an overdose.

Other relatives and friends have never been told it was suicide, so he does not want his name to be used.

It was not long after the death that he got another shock - this time a letter from his daughter's landlord.

"We held her funeral at the end of March," he remembers.

"The bill for renovating the flat came in April, then a demand for compensation for lost rent in May. So it was one after another.

"The only thing I could think about was my lost daughter. So when I was getting those bills, I had no will or strength to negotiate or resist."

In all he paid more than £18,650 ($30,000).

Purification rituals

Japan has a historic tradition of ritual suicide as an honourable way out. But as the number of people killing themselves has risen, public unease has grown.

Few would choose to rent an apartment where a previous occupant had taken their own life. So a death is frequently followed by a demand for money.

"There are a lot of them," says Sachiko Tanaka who set up a support group for the families of suicides after her own son died.

"Mostly it's compensation for loss of rent for flats. The biggest was 120m yen (£900,000). The claim was that the entire apartment building was worthless because one person committed suicide there. So they have to pay to rebuild it."

Many families are also required to pay for expensive purification rituals.

The support group is dealing with around 200 complaints of excessive demands from landlords and she is calling for a change in the law.

Already some estate agents are keen to help the bereaved.

Yoshihiro Kanuma has what he calls a difficult house on his books. He was motivated to take it on by his devout Buddhism.

image captionNine out of 10 people don't want anything to do with the house, says estate agent Yoshihiro Kanuma

It is an ordinary-looking place, a few years old - what the trade in Japan calls a 3LDK; three bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen, in a commuter town outside Tokyo.

The tour takes in the master bedroom, with a view over a paddy field, but then he has to tell potential buyers that the last owner hanged himself on the stairs.

"Nine out of 10 people say I don't want anything to do with the house," he says.

"The Japanese may think the house is stained. I guess some may say it's heroic to take your own life but in terms of a house it's not viewed that way. We feel the house is not pure and it will bring unhappiness. I personally think the house itself has no responsibility but lots of Japanese feel that way."

Mr Kanuma has managed to persuade one family to put in an offer which has been accepted - half the price of other houses in the area.

Back in Sendai the bereaved father sits silently in his chair, and lights up another cigarette.

He admits he has turned into a recluse, and says he would like to die himself.

Compared to the loss of his daughter the money is nothing, but like many Japanese he is suffering not just bereavement, but financial hardship too.

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