Glued to a computer screen in his north Tokyo apartment, the stocky, part-time sushi delivery man spent weeks searching the recesses of the Internet. Going simply by the handle “Murata,” the 28-year-old surfed for online companions harboring his same dark interest: the desire to die.
He found what he was looking for on a host of new Japanese-language Web sites such as “Underground Suicide” and “Deadline.” Promising to supply most of the materials, he made arrangements to kill himself with two anonymous Internet friends on a mid-May afternoon. Face to face for the first time, the three young men drove to a tranquil mountain pass six hours north of Tokyo. They shared sleeping pills, and then — following detailed instructions posted on a Web site — set charcoal alight inside their car and died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Maybe he didn’t have high hopes for the future, but it is still so hard to understand how he could have done it,” said Murata’s 35-year-old brother, who shared their apartment. He spoke on condition that both their names be withheld. “I’ve disconnected the Internet at home, at least while our family comes to terms with this.”
The deaths of the three men marked only one incident in an extraordinary string of Internet suicides to hit Japan. Over the past six months, police investigators say at least 32 people — mostly in their teens and twenties — have killed themselves nationwide after meeting strangers online. Many more young Japanese have entered into online suicide pacts, but either failed in their attempts or backed out at the last minute.
Psychiatrists and suicide experts are linking the phenomenon to a profound national identity crisis during Japan’s 13-year economic funk. Indeed, the Internet deaths come at a time when Japan is undergoing an alarming surge in its overall suicide rate — with financial problems cited as the fastest growing reason for despair.
The culture of suicide, encapsulated by the honorable hara-kiri rite of the ancient samurai, is nothing new here. But even by Japanese standards, there has been a staggering jump in suicides, to 32,143 last year, compared with 21,346 in 1990, the beginning of Japan’s economic slide. The current suicide rate — 25.2 suicides per 100,000 people — is about double that of the United States.
Though Western, religion-based stigmas of suicide do not exist here, the Internet deaths have nevertheless dismayed this island nation, becoming a dominant topic in chat rooms and the subject of a new play.
The deaths have drawn attention to a deadly mix between Japanese traditions of suicide and its mega-tech society, which have now melded into a proliferation of “how-to-die” Web sites accessible from schools, offices, subways, trains and cars through wireless connections on most Japanese cell phones. They have become a source of morbid fascination for a growing subculture of troubled, mostly younger Japanese.
The majority of the 20 males and 12 females who killed themselves after linking up on these sites came from Japan’s “lost generation” — people in their teens and twenties who have come of age in a less secure, less confident society. Japan today is nation where unemployment and homelessness have soared, and companies — long the pillars of society — no longer offer workers the promise of a job for life. The new realties have put added stress on families, sending the divorce rate steadily higher.
Given the changes, experts say, many young adults in the world’s second-largest economy have become dangerously cynical about their futures.
“They are lost and confused. The long-held direction and goals of Japanese society are collapsing around them,” said Rika Kayama, a Tokyo psychiatrist who has studied the Internet suicide phenomenon. “Japanese adults used to be able to say to their children that if you try very hard at school or at work, you’ll see the rewards. But adults can no longer say that, because in many ways, it is no longer true.”
That confusion has manifested itself in a number of new societal ills. As many as 1 million Japanese, mostly young men in their twenties, have withdrawn from society altogether, becoming “shut-ins” inside their parents’ homes for six months to several years.
The news media are also decrying an increase in kireru, or the “snapping” of youths. Last month, several middle-class high school boys murdered a mutual friend after a minor disagreement. There seemed to be little real hate in the act — the boys even stopped to share a refreshment with their friend before dealing him the killing blows.
With the wave of Internet deaths, experts say, young Japanese are turning those instincts on themselves.
Police investigators have tracked the beginning of the Net death trend to a Feb. 11 tableau in a vacant apartment near Tokyo. One man and two women, all in their twenties, were found dead inside.
A 17-year-old girl who had originally agreed to join them but backed out at the last minute, told police that the three were jobless and worried about the future. They had met after Michio Sakai, a 26-year-old unemployed magazine salesman from just north of Tokyo, posted a “death ad” on an underground suicide site: “I am looking for suicide partners,” it said. “If you join me, I will give you sleeping pills. . . . It is lonely to die alone.”
The suicides made headlines across Japan and became the inspiration for a series of copycat pacts over the Web, authorities say. The individuals find each other on bulletin boards and chat rooms in any one of dozens of suicide Web sites, including one that proudly displays gothic skulls and crossbones as readers scan tips and best methods for ending their lives.
Citing freedom of expression, Japanese authorities have been loath to clamp down on the sites, instead asking content providers to police themselves. The Internet deaths are especially shocking, however, because police say those individuals who killed themselves appeared to make relatively snap decisions to end their lives, sometimes over seemingly minor problems. One young man, for instance, wrote in e-mails that he was merely upset over a minor traffic accident.
“Their reasons were unclear. These were not obviously desperate people with unbearable problems,” said Naoki Miyagi, a director with Japan’s National Police Agency.
Experts say this reflects a disturbing trend: A July poll of 100 teenagers by the Japanese weekly magazine Aera found that 30 percent of respondents had considered suicide, with a majority citing “trivial matters” as reasons.
Taken alone, such feelings are unlikely to rise to the level of suicide. But through the Internet troubled Japanese are finding support from one another to die.
In a society that spends extraordinary amounts of time online, the Internet’s ability to influence people has grown exponentially. It has given people with only moderately suicidal tendencies a medium to find each other — and feed off each other’s depression.
Hana, the cyber handle of a 30-year-old Tokyo computer saleswoman who frequented suicide chat rooms before receiving counseling, said in an interview that she once did a live online broadcast of slitting her wrist.
“I wrote on the chat site, ‘I’m cutting now’ — and then I had to go to the emergency room and get seven stitches,” she said. “Several hours later, I found out someone online who was reading my words also decided to slit her wrist, and had to get 20 stitches.”
Murata, who killed himself with two strangers, did not appear clinically depressed, nor did he have a history of being suicidal, according to his family. He delivered sushi part-time, and liked to use his money to take long trips on his motorcycle into the countryside. Recently, however, he had less work, and was spending much of his time at home alone playing video games.
After his death, his family found e-mails in which the three men had negotiated their ends, deciding who would bring what. “I’ll get the sleeping pills and the charcoal,” Murata wrote to one of his suicide companions. “I’ll borrow my brother’s car,” came back a reply from one of the other two men on the day before they set off to die.
“There was no discussion of why he was doing it, just an indication that maybe he was tired of living,” said Murata’s distraught father, a 67-year-old security guard. “But I don’t think he could have done it alone. So he found others who were willing to do it with him. I suppose it made it less frightening for him. But I will never know for sure.”