March 12, 2024#41 Providing Japan’s Only 24/7/365 Chat Counseling Service that Everyone Can Use Free of Charge and Anonymously―IbashoChat.org Stays Close to Those Who Suffer from Unwanted Loneliness

Mr. Masakazu Negishi, Director and Secretary General  of IbashoChat.org, a non-profit organization

IbashoChat.org is a non-profit organization (NPO) that has been working to eliminate unwanted loneliness, where people are unable to talk even if they want to, or unable to rely on others even if they want to seek support. By providing a chat counseling service that everyone can use free of charge and anonymously 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the organization has created a system that ensures reliable access to someone you can always trust. In a society where many people feel difficulties in their lives, we spoke with Mr. Masakazu Negishi, the Director and Secretary General of IbashoChat.org, about building a last bastion of support which everyone can rely on at any time.

Mr. Masakazu Negishi, Director and Secretary General of IbashoChat.org, a non-profit organization

―Could you tell us about why your organization started this kind of chat counseling service?

The president of our organization is Koki Ozora, who is 25 years old, graduated from Keio University last year. He himself thought about suicide when he was in high school. In his case, he was luckily saved by his high school teacher who took care of him. That experience led him to start this NPO based on the belief that “such help should be available always not by chance, so a system is needed where everyone can access in such times.” He founded the organization in March 2020 and has since then been running a 24/7 chat counseling helpline that everyone can use free of charge and anonymously regardless of age or gender.

―Mr.Negishi, how and why did you join IbashoChat?

I originally work as a consultant specializing in corporate transformation at IBM Japan. I initially joined IbashoChat as a volunteer chat counselor in November 2020. As a parent of two children, I was aware that the number of child suicides was at an all-time high during the COVID-19 pandemic, so I felt the desire to contribute to our society in any way I could.

Since 2021, I started taking on other roles in addition to counseling, and by 2022, I have been the Secretary General of IbashoChat and the Director (somewhat like a Chief Operating Officer of a company)since 2023.

When I joined as a volunteer, the organization where Mr. Ozora was conducting interviews for each volunteer was relatively small with about only 100 members. However, it has experienced rapid growth and now has expanded into an organization with 900 volunteers and 30 paid employees in 30 countries around the world.

―How many cases does your counseling service receive on average?

We handle about 1000 to 1500 consultations per day. Our efforts are like stemming river flow downstream, so we’re working on more “upstream” sectors by making policy proposals to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretariat and by approaching the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and others. Our efforts have contributed to the realization of policies for tackling loneliness, a political concept that was not even recognized in Japan. From this April, the “Act on Promotion of Policy for Loneliness and Isolation” will be officially enforced, which I think is one of the achievements of our organization’s activities.

―Since there are a lot of counseling sessions, are staff members, rather than AI, handling all those chat responses?

First, our algorithm will determine whether the person is at high risk of suicide or may be suffering from domestic violence or abuse, based on their responses to the chatbot. Those deemed to be at risk will be assigned professional paid staff such as certified and clinical psychologists. Those deemed to be at low risk of suicide will be connected to our volunteer counselors around the world. In addition, in cases where the system may initially appear to indicate low suicide risk but the reality may turn out to be otherwise, our supervisors and professional counselors will be available 24/7 for assisting our clients. Besides, efforts are made to provide mental support for our counselors as well.

―The 24/7/365 service is amazing. Could you explain how is this achieved?

With the help of 900 volunteers from 30 countries around the world, we have created a counseling support system that operates around the clock. During peak hours, typically between 10 pm to 2 am, our overseas members will handle the counseling service. The number of counseling sessions since the foundation of our organization is expected to reach 1 million soon. Our counselors focus on empathetic listening rather than giving advice, and we strive to maintain quality through a rigorous training system. Our service is the only chat-based counseling service in Japan that allows everyone to receive counseling for free and anonymously 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

―What are the common attributes of the individuals who seek counseling support?

About 70% are women, and more than 50% are in their 10s and 20s. While middle-aged men account for a high percentage of suicides in Japan, there are fewer consultations from men, including those in that age group. This may be attributed to the societal structure in Japan where there still is a stigma (i.e., a negative label imposed by the society or social groups) that assumes Japanese men should be strong and it’s embarrassing to receive counseling. Considering these factors, we are exploring a separate marketing approach for men, such as placing a QR code in business hotels that allow access to our service.

We’re also implementing IT-based initiatives, such as distributing file folders with small QR codes printed on them but without using phrases regarding “loneliness” or “isolation,” in elementary schools. We also utilize social media to encourage the flow of users to our chat system.

―There seems to be a lot to learn from the data collected from counseling cases.

We analyze data accumulated every day by segmenting it into various types, such as by day of the week, time of day, consultation category, etc. We also have data scientists to advance evidence-based initiatives in open data, policy recommendations, and proposals to local governments and companies. Leveraging our achievements from the “upstream” to “downstream” processes, including the high quality of our chat service, counseling records, and comprehensive support for loneliness and isolation, we collaborate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, the World Health Organization (WHO), and local governments in Japan. We also offer our system and expertise to companies for external sales as a part of our business expansion.

―Could you tell us more about the external sales to other companies?

We sell services such as chat counseling, data analysis, loneliness prevention programs, and marketing support. Currently, we offer Premium, Standard, and Basic plans, but we are still looking for and designing a better price system and service levels. We have received many inquiries particularly from foreign companies in Japan. There are many employees who may find it uncomfortable to receive effective counseling from an industrial doctor contracted by their company, so there is a need for external organizations like ours.

―How has the business been working so far?

I strongly feel the potential of a new business. We are actively engaged in daily activities that aim to provide value that can meet expectations for the promotion of measures against loneliness and isolation.

In addition, those who ask for counseling are typically, I would say, in a negative mental health state. As we used to consider that our role is to help our clients bring it back to a neutral status and leave it up to local communities and other organizations to further promote it into a positive status. However, we have recently begun to provide support in the second phase as well.


Specifically, there is a support initiative originating in the United Kingdom called Social Prescribing (i.e., a means to prescribe connections with communities and people to patients), which inspired us to create Ibasho Ticket. This is an initiative to provide electronic tickets for community resources such as nature and art. With support from the Nippon Foundation, we collect data on how participants’ feelings have changed before and after their engagement in these activities.


―Do you have any concerns in the course of your efforts as an NPO?

I’m concerned about how NPOs are recognized in the Japanese society. In the United States, there are cases where those who have obtained an MBA work for NPOs and earn a considerable annual income, but such cases are rarely seen in Japan as it is commonly accepted that salaries of NPO staffs should be low, otherwise it would be shameful, reflecting the ideology of embracing a humble and frugal image for NPO businesses. For this reason, I’d like to create a new NPO culture together with our president Koki Ozora.

―Could you tell us your future plans?

This may be taken for granted, but what I’ve found through my experiences both in the private and NPO sectors is that it’s important to manage performance based on well-planned strategies. It’s necessary to build governance and craft contract wording from scratch. Currently, there is a lack of management resources that can keep up with the hard work required to initiate such projects. We aim to attract individuals with corporate experience, including pro bono work (i.e., work as a volunteer who utilizes their professional experience and skills), who are interested in our business. Also, while our counseling chat service is currently available only in Japanese, we intend to provide an English version in the future.

Company name:IbashoChat.org
Founded:March 2020
Number of employees:821 (including counselors), as of December 31, 2023
Main businesses:chat-based counseling service, data utilization, educational programs for loneliness prevention

This article is part of a series of articles introducing venture companies working together as ICF members to resolve societal issues.

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