A message of hope can help prevent suicide among still-suffering Japanese tsunami victims, says a suburban minister who this week will make his fourth trip to his native country since the tragedy a year ago.
Besides visiting people in community centers and temporary housing areas, the Rev. Yugo Kobari and his wife, Keiko, will talk with organizers about bringing 15 or more Japanese young people to the Chicago area next summer to give the youngsters a two-week break from their post-tsunami traumas.
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"So many people try to commit suicide because they have no hope," said Kobari, whose Chicago Japanese Mission Church meets in Schaumburg while building a church in Arlington Heights. "They have lost their families, brothers, sisters, mothers. They are at a crucial point, and I want to tell them about God."
Suicides in Japan exceeded 30,000 for a 14th straight year in 2011, driven mainly by health issues, government figures show. Suicides for the year fell 3.3 percent, but the number rose in April, May, June and August, after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. In May, cases jumped 21 percent to 3,375, an increase that Tomohiko Karube, an official working on suicide prevention at the Cabinet Office, said was at least partly due to the economic fallout from the disaster.
The Kobaris will leave Thursday, March 15, to visit the Sendai area near the epicenter of the earthquake that caused the tsunami.
Even though people from the northeast area of Japan are anti-Christian, they listen to the Baptist minister for two reasons, he said. First, he is from the area. He lost an aunt and uncle in the disaster, and his mother and brother still live in the Fukushima region, home to the crippled nuclear power plants. And second, the residents appreciate that Christian groups are still helping even a year after the disaster.
Kobari's first post-tsunami trip was in May, and after a 5-minute prayer following a concert in a shelter, people came up and grasped his hand. "Here's this guy from Chicago saying he would pray for them. They said, 'Thank you so much.' They were crying, and they opened their hearts to God."
On one of the earlier trips, Kobari took $40,000 collected by Korean congregations in the Chicago area. That money was used to build shelters for volunteers who went to Japan, he said. And in November, he met a despondent fisherman Kobari thinks was saved from suicide when volunteers helped him get nets and fix his boat's motor.
"He lost his ship, house, family, everybody and had no hope to start a new life," said Kobari. "He was so happy. He was fishing again and he gave me a raw fish."
Volunteers are still needed in Japan, including doctors, carpenters and engineers, said Kobari.
His friend, the Rev. Akira Sato, a Fukushima minister who visited the suburbs in October, is still working to raise funds to build a new church and homes for his congregants about 20 miles from the nuclear power plants, said Kobari. Sato's old church was three miles from the power plants.
Helping victims of the tsunami has slowed work on Kobari's own church. Volunteers from Arkansas are coming to help with interior work like drywalling, but his current challenge is finding a way to build an affordable parking lot.
Kobari also has been asked to arrange housing with families of area congregations for the high school students coming next summer. Their airfare will be paid by an organization called Food for the Hungry.
"We want them to relax and heal their minds. They have lost their families," he said.
• Bloomberg News contributed to this report.