Internet fuels epidemic of group suicides among young Japanese

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The Independent Online

Young Japanese people are still joining group-suicide pacts in record numbers despite efforts to crack down on the bizarre internet-led phenomenon.

Japanese police said yesterday that a record 91 people had committed suicide together after meeting via the web in 2005, up from 55 people the previous year. The figure has tripled since the police began keeping records in 2003. Most of the victims were in their teens, twenties and thirties and sought each other out via websites that allow the suicidal to swap e-mail addresses, share stories and offer advice on the surest, least painful ways to die.

Many opt for carbon monoxide poisoning in sealed vehicles, often in secluded or scenic areas, like four young men who died while watching the sun rise from a car at the foot of Mount Fuji. The men met for the first time just hours before their death.

The latest statistics will likely lead to more demands for monitoring of cyberspace, including renewed calls to ban the word "suicide" from search engines. Net service providers already work with the police and there are signs the group-suicide phenomenon may have peaked. But Yukio Saito, who runs Japan's largest telephone helpline, cautions against complacency. "People will always find a way to end their lives if they want to. The wider issues must be tackled."

In Japan, 94 people took their own lives every day in 2003, setting a record of 34,427 that broke the previous high of 33,048, in 1999. Since the Asian crash of 1997-8, when the statistics jumped 35 per cent, suicides have claimed more than 220,000 lives, approximately the population of Derby. A suicide manual that lists effective ways of ending it all - including hanging, electrocution and pills - has sold more than a million copies. In true Japanese style it rates these methods in terms of the pain and trouble they cause to others; predictably, jumping in front of a train is given a maximum rating of five.

The dramatic rise in suicides forced the health ministry to bring out a package of proposals at the end of 2002, including a drastic boost in mental healthcare facilities. But Japan still has far fewer psychiatrists than other advanced countries, and family doctors routinely misdiagnose mental illness. A health ministry survey found that more than half of the workers recognised as having committed suicide due to work-related stress between 1999 and 2002 had been working at least 100 hours overtime a month. "This is a suicide epidemic," says Mr Saito. "We are not doing enough to help people who are suffering in silence."

Japan is not unique. South Korea has also experienced a wave of suicide pacts, and Ireland has seen a 45 per cent increase in suicides over the past decade. But, at 24.1 per 100,000 people, Japan has the highest per-capita suicide rate in the developed world.

Nearly 8,000 people in their twenties and thirties killed themselves in 2003, making suicide one of the leading causes of death for young Japanese. Many of these youngsters are drawn from the ranks of hikkikomori, social recluses who have locked themselves in their rooms, sometimes for years on end.

Many are linked to the outside world only through the electronic umbilical cord of their computers, which they use to find like-minded folk. Dozens of young Japanese can be found every day discussing suicide on online chat rooms. A typical message reads: "If you are thinking about killing yourself, please reply." Another says: "I'm in my early twenties and I want to die easily. I can go anywhere in Japan." Fittingly, perhaps, one of the last acts of the suicidal is often to e-mail a friend or relative. Several times in the past two years the police have stumbled on semi- asphyxiated young people just in time, after similar messages were sent.