KUMAMOTO, Japan – A week before the artist, author and architect Kyohei Sakaguchi planned to move into one of his celebrated "zero yen" houses, built from recycled materials, the catastrophic 2011 earthquake struck Japan. A tsunami engulfed the Tohoku region and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant collapsed. He had recently begun treatment for bipolar disorder. Overwhelmed, he left Tokyo and headed back home to the verdant coastal city of Kumamoto in southwest Japan, and abandoned the recycling project.
But what started off as artistic abandonment in fact marked an artistic shift. "After the earthquake, I got very depressed and suicidal, and I started to think about how to really care for myself," Sakaguchi said in a phone interview. "That's when I started to publish my phone number."
It was the birth of a new suicide help line, directly to Sakaguchi's personal cellphone. Leveraging his large online following, he began receiving calls from people, at first five a day, and eventually, close to 100. The volume of phone calls has only climbed with the pandemic, where suicides in Japan have been on the rise.
In returning to Kumamoto, Sakaguchi got a fresh start. While a modern city in the center, Kumamoto is just 30 minutes from both lush mountains and a tranquil sea. Sakaguchi moved into a neighborhood that was once the city's historical center, and a walk around the block revealed 19th-century buildings and a traditional paper-maker. The view from his vegetable farm by the sea frames what was a secret trading port for Chinese and Korean ships during the isolationist Edo period.
Exploring his heritage in Kumamoto and coping with bipolar disorder led Sakaguchi to all sorts of artistic forays. He wrote practical self-help books and answered phone calls, he painted abstract art and wrote experimental fiction.
"I think art is a technique for life," he said. "I do what I do in order to keep living."
Sakaguchi's career began in architecture school, where he was intrigued by a government report that estimated that there were 6 million vacant houses in Japan. "I asked my professor why we had to build new houses," he said. "I thought it was very strange. I started thinking, is there a way to become an architect without building a house?"
Sakaguchi published a guide and an appreciation in the form of a photographic essay book, "Zero Yen House," in 2004 showcasing the varied designs, and later held exhibitions and talks in Philadelphia; Berkeley, Calif.; Nairobi, Kenya; as well as in Vancouver and Banff in Canada. The range of styles is remarkable: a mobile cardboard home built on a wooden cart, a house made out of a discarded playground slide, and even a house that incorporates a Shinto shrine. He went on to make videos on how to build your own mobile house.
After Fukushima, Sakaguchi refurbished a crumbling house in Kumamoto as refugee housing and called it the "Zero Center." At one point, 30 to 40 families displaced from Fukushima were living there.
"These houses are built on a shoestring budget by diverting and recycling the rubbish thrown away on the street," Sakaguchi wrote for a 2006 exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. "In this respect, these houses are built out of the resourcefulness of human nature, not by purchasing power."
After Fukushima, Sakaguchi engaged in various forms of artistry, at first as a form of self-care. "When I'm manic, I want to make a new government, create zero yen houses, but when I'm depressed, I want to write, I want to paint," he said. His 2016 exhibition at the prestigious Trax gallery in Yamanashi prefecture featured intense oil paintings: red, gray, teal, scratched and scarred depictions of torment, capturing the depths of depression that inspired him to start speaking with other suicidal people.
"There are suicide hotlines" in Japan, "but oftentimes, you can't reach a professional," he said. "If 100 people call, 90-plus don't get answered. As long as I was manic, I figured, let me do it myself."
Sakaguchi said he had talked to more than 20,000 people since he started taking calls. In his 2020 book, "Kurushii Toki wa Denwa Shite (Call Me When You're in Pain)," he wrote about his experiences with suicidal thoughts, answering calls from strangers, and his recommended strategies for coping. "I think my limit is talking to about 10 people a day," he wrote.
Recognizing that he's not a doctor, Sakaguchi approaches the task like an addict talking to other drug abusers. As Sakaguchi put it, "They're asking their druggie senpai [upperclassman] how to cope with a bad trip." He said he takes an active approach on these calls, giving callers assignments, tips and new directions to take their brains.
"Call Me When You're in Pain" is part of a self-help trend in Sakaguchi's recent nonfiction writing. Last year, he also wrote a resource for self-care titled "Make Your Own Medicine." And perhaps his most-well known published work is his bestselling book, "Build Your Own Independent Nation," in which he dissects ideas on government and land ownership, and proposes systems for economic and creative life.
It's easy to understand how Sakaguchi undertakes many different projects simultaneously — to him, everything is connected. He connects his vegetable garden to his art, his art to his depression, Kumamoto's history and literary heritage to his writing, and so on. This connectedness comes with the support and stability of his wife, Ryoko, and their children, who, at 12 and 7 years old, are now old enough to understand bipolar disorder. Sakaguchi uses the ingredients he grows in his garden for his family's daily meals. His studio is surprisingly sparse and organized for someone working on so many kinds of projects.
Above all, he'll be answering a ton of calls. The fight to survive lies at the heart of his art, no matter what direction the work itself takes.
"The best thing I can do is talk to someone on the phone," he said. "That's when I feel hope."