Hi-tech crime traumatises Tokyo

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EARLY IN the new year, a few days before her death, a young woman named Kumiko Yamamoto called, on her mobile phone, one of the automated dating services known in Japanese as "dengon dial".

There are thousands of such services, and the system is simple. Women call in and leave messages, often suggestive or flirtatious. A few days later, they ring back to hear the recorded responses of interested men. Messages can be exchanged without any direct contact, indefinitely.

But the idea, of course, is that at some point a meeting should take place. Kumiko Yamamoto's date was 11 days ago. She met a 23-year-old man who took her for a drive near her house. He offered her a pill, explaining that it would give her beautiful skin; incredibly, she took it.

The pill was a powerful sleeping drug and, after stealing her money and her mobile phone, the man dumped Ms Yamamoto in a car park near her home outside Tokyo.

By the morning she had frozen to death.

The man was arrested the following day after an earlier victim of the same scam reported him to police. She was lucky enough to have met him on a mild day: after a deep sleep out in the open, she simply woke up and went home.

But at least one other female victim died of hypothermia, and six others were robbed in the same way, all of them users of the same dengon dial service.

There has been a growing anxiety in Japan about crime in the past four years, especially among young people, and since Christmas this has taken on a very particular focus - the dangerous effects of technology. Few nations have such an appetite for gadgets and innovation as Japan, and in recent weeks there has been a spate of frightening stories about their potential abuse.

Until the dengon dial case, the main cause of concern was the Internet.

Like many countries, Japan is grappling with the question of how best to police the World Wide Web; police figures record that the number of Internet- related crimes tripled between 1995 and 1997, most of them frauds involving credit card numbers and pornography.

At the end of last year a man was arrested after an attempted rape of a young woman; he carried with him a bottle of chloroform which he had bought through a website. But the story that got the biggest headlines was the case of Dr Kiriko.

Last month, two young women, unknown to each other, killed themselves in different parts of Tokyo - small additions to recessionary Japan's growing suicide rate.

But the means used by the two women were unusual - cyanide tablets that turned out to have been bought through a website named "Dr Kiriko's clinic", after a character in a popular comic who practises euthanasia.

Investigations revealed that six others had bought cyanide in the same way; in all cases but one, police got to them before the cyanide was used.

The exception was Dr Kiriko. He turned out to be a 27-year-old school teacher who had qualified as a pharmacist. At his home was 500g of cyanide, enough to kill 3000 people.

What these various incidents share in common is hard to say. The majority of users of the dengon dial lines, after all, do not end up like Ms Yamamoto, and it is difficult to blame the World Wide Web for the suicidal tendencies of Dr Kiriko's customers. With a few exceptions, Japanese commentators have refrained from demanding new laws and controls; the consensus has been that these stories have more to say about young Japanese than the technology that was their undoing.

Half of all Japanese between the ages of 12 and 30 own a mobile phone or beeper, and a range of services and activities - from dengon dial to teenage prostitution - has flourished as a result of their proliferation.

But to older Japanese at least, there is a sense that the surge in personal communications has done nothing to increase communication - that young people are, if anything, more alienated from one another than before, happier engaging in solitary web surfing or meeting strange men than meeting friends and family. "Young people resort to such media because they are incapable of forming proper relationships with others," opined the biggest- selling newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun this week. "They have not been raised to lead a life that requires meeting and competing with one another in the flesh."

The most alarming question is not what to do about telephone dating, but why eight young women were prepared to swallow a pill given to them by a complete stranger.