Let’s Die Together

Why is anonymous group suicide so popular in Japan?
I
The Death Cars of Saitama

On March 10, 2006, a car was discovered in a lightly wooded area of Saitama, a suburban prefecture near Tokyo. The windows had been taped shut. What the investigating officers who were called to the scene found was all too familiar: a plastic bag containing traces of crushed sleeping pills, and a row of charcoal burners that had sucked the oxygen from the car, asphyxiating the five young men and one woman inside. When I turned up at the Saitama police headquarters two weeks later, I was greeted by a spindly middle-aged spokesman who at first refused to answer any questions about the most recent case of group suicide in his prefecture. His gray suit and black-framed glasses, and the double row of ballpoint pens in his shirt pocket, gave him the exaggerated geeky appearance of a manga character. During my first two weeks in Japan, five cars filled with dead bodies were discovered in the woods around Tokyo. It is a sign of how familiar these macabre cases have become that none merited more than a passing mention in the local newspapers.

“We do not know if the victims were familiar with each other or how they became familiar,” the police spokesman said, holding his briefcase firmly on his lap. Unlike murder, suicide is not a crime, so investigators find it difficult to justify pursuing these cases. “Indeed,” he continued, “as of today, 15 days after the fact, we are not aware of how they came to know each other, nor has there been any evident violation of law related to this incident, although the investigation is ongoing.”

From 2003 through 2005, 180 people died in 61 reported cases of Internet-assisted group suicide in Japan. (No statistics have so far been made public for 2006.) All but two of these cases have proceeded according to a common blueprint: The victims meet online, using anonymous screen names, and then take sleeping pills and use briquettes, charcoal burners, and tape to turn a car or van into a mobile gas chamber.

The first official report of the deaths in Saitama, filed at 12:30 p.m. on March 10, indicates that residents of the village of Chichibu informed the local police that a car with six bodies had been found on a dirt road nearby. In the driver’s seat, police reports stated blandly, was a male, 20 to 30 years old, with long hair, a checkered shirt, and blue jeans. Next to him was a woman in her 20s wearing a brown coat and brown skirt, and on her left, a man in his 20s in a black jacket and jeans. The driver and the man in the black jacket both worked as clerks. The woman was an unemployed 28-year-old from the provincial city of Fukuoka. In the backseat were a male in his 20s with “normal hair” who wore black jeans and had worked as an architect in Saitama; an unemployed male in his 20s in a red jacket; and a 21-year-old male with longish hair, in a black jacket and blue jeans, who was employed as a shop assistant in Kanagawa. All they appeared to have in common was that they were in their 20s, had access to the Internet, and had met online for the purpose of dying together in a car.

As I looked over the files at a teahouse near the police station, I was joined by a young reporter from  Saitama who had been covering Internet-related group suicide for the Mainichi newspapers. He began working the suicide beat on February 11, 2003, when, in the first case recorded by government statisticians, three people killed themselves in Iruma City by burning charcoal briquettes in an empty apartment. The victims were a 26-year-old man named Michio Sakai, who was troubled by his inability to find work, and two 24-year-old women he had met on an Internet site called “Group Suicide Bulletin Board,” which he had opened the previous year.

“Where did they get the idea of using charcoal?” I asked.

“There were rumors on the Internet that to die from briquettes was to die in your sleep,” the young reporter, handsome and open-faced, with a touch of adolescent acne, explained. “It was a very painless way to go.”

The death site was a traditional tatami room, with a plastic sheet laid down to preserve the mats. Smoldering charcoal burners had been placed in each corner, and the bodies were lying parallel in the center of the room. The women had brought sleeping bags to protect themselves from the cold; all three wore ski goggles to keep the smoke from their eyes.

“I just didn’t get it,” the reporter said. “How could you end your life with someone you’d never even met before?”

II
The Perfect Suicide

Suicide, which Shakespeare called “self-slaughter” and which is known in Christian teaching as “the sin against the Holy Ghost,” occupies a very different place in the imagination of the West than it does in Japan, where self-disembowelment with a specialized blade has long been considered a proper response to shame or dishonor. In his classic study Suicide, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim drew a sharp distinction between suicide in Western Europe and what he saw as the “altruistic” forms of suicide prevalent in Japan. A grim twist on Durkheim’s notion was provided during World War II by kamikaze pilots, who pioneered suicide bombing as a tactic of modern warfare. Japan’s three most prominent postwar writers— the Nobel laureates Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe, and Kawabata’s famous student, the novelist Yukio Mishima—have been preoccupied with suicide. Kawabata and Mishima each died by his own hand.

Japanese authorities have been slow to react with any notable alarm to a recent nationwide embrace of death that has caused the official suicide rate to increase by an average of about 5 percent a year for the past decade. More than 32,500 suicides were reported in 2005; because insurance benefits tend to be denied to the dead person’s family, many suicides are recorded as accidents. On two occasions during my 10 weeks in Tokyo, I was startled out of my rush-hour daze by the matter-of-fact voice of an announcer apologizing to riders for a delay in service caused by a “human-related incident,” the officially sanctioned euphemism used when a commuter has jumped in front of a train. Cases like these are often reported as accidents rather than suicides. The only countries with higher official suicide rates are Sri Lanka, which is mired in an unending civil war, and the former Soviet republics and their Eastern European satellites, where economic disaster and profound political changes have combined to produce the kind of social disintegration otherwise associated with catastrophic military defeat.

Many Japanese blame the rising suicide rate on the collapse of the “bubble economy” in the early 1990s, which threw hundreds of thousands out of work and led many families to take on unaccustomed and unsustainable levels of debt, often at extortionate (but legal) interest rates as high as 40 percent. Yet even as the economy has markedly improved, the suicide rate has continued to rise. Meanwhile, the Japanese total fertility rate has plummeted, reaching a Spenglerian sub-replacement level of 1.3 children per woman, among the lowest in the history of the industrialized world.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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