Gas firm's notice to would-be suicides leaves a sour taste

It must have seemed a reasonable idea. The people at Osaka Gas noticed some of their customers in Kobe were under a misapprehension about their product. So they mounted a public-information campaign. Posters were displayed in the Kobe area spelling out a simple message: "You can't commit suicide with natural gas."

The posters got a response, but not the one the company expected. "We sincerely hoped the poster would help make our customers more aware of the correct use of energy," a spokesman said. "But we just got a flood of complaints."

The company wished to explain that natural gas does not contain lethal carbon monoxide. The best a would-be suicide could hope for is a gas explosion. But the implication - that suicide is fine by Osaka Gas so long as you don't use its equipment - upset customers. "You might just as well write underneath that there are some very nice pine trees in the park, perfect for topping yourself," wrote one correspondent. "The poster is thoughtless, and offensive to quake victims."

The posters touched a raw nerve in Kobe. Since the earthquake that killed 6,000 in January, suicides have risen. Public utilities (including gas) are back to normal. But there are still 50,000 prefab units housing survivors unable to move to the far-flung apartments offered by the government.

By the beginning of this month the official number of post-earthquake suicides was 22, although psychologists believe the true total is higher.

Voluntary death has an ancient role in Japanese culture, but as the population ages, it is the escape of the elderly and, alarmingly, the very young. Figures yesterday showed that 86 children of 14 and under killed themselves in 1994, an increase on the previous year of almost 50 per cent; among junior high- school students the increase was from 22 to 87. The youngest suicide was a boy of nine who killed himself after being scolded by his parents.

Osaka Gas noticed a similar trend: after sinking to 10 in 1990, attempted gas suicides in its catchment area rose to 16 last year. None was successful. Now, thanks to those posters, they have a better chance to get it right first time.