The most spectacular manifestation of Japan’s exploding suicide culture, Internet group suicide, is unique in that it is rooted in the technologies of the computer age and has no meaningful precedent in traditional Japanese social behavior. In the summer of 2004, Japan decided to address this disturbing new phenomenon in a peculiarly modern Japanese fashion, through an informal series of meetings convened by the Internet providers’ consortium at the suggestion of the National Police, an advisory body that makes procedural recommendations to local prefectures but lacks enforcement powers of its own. Back in Tokyo, I met with Kazuhiko Yoshida, the young brush-haired chief of the National Police’s cyber-crime division, which is in charge of establishing national policy on a range of problems, from spam to fraud, copyright violation, and child pornography.
“In the first six months, there were about seven or eight official meetings to decide whether we should have guidelines,” Yoshida explained. “Then another seven or eight meetings were held until the October release of the guidelines that were finally decided on.” For the guidelines to be triggered, the cyber-crime chief explained, an individual must use the word death and express the desire to die. He or she must also name the place of death and the method by which the suicide will be effected. The conversation must take place on a bulletin board specifically devoted to suicide. If all these criteria are met, the police have the right to ask the Internet provider for registration and credit-card information. So far, Yoshida proudly revealed, a grand total of 12 group-suicide attempts had been stopped as a result of the new guidelines.
To the extent that the popular revival of suicide culture can be traced to any single event, this would be the publication, in 1993, of The Perfect Suicide Manual, a book by Wataru Tsurumi, a Tokyo University graduate and publishing-industry dropout. Tsurumi is an obsessive who professes a Nabokovian indifference to the consequences of publishing his work. In a culture where conformity is expected and geeks have a surprising amount of cultural power, he is a charismatic figure who has attained the kind of celebrity status usually reserved in Japan for pop stars or cartoon characters.
To date, The Perfect Suicide Manual has provided more than 2 million despairing or simply curious Japanese souls with technically explicit instructions on how to take their lives by 10 methods including hanging, electrocution, drug overdose, asphyxiation, and self- immolation. Tsurumi’s book contains tips about the best places to commit suicide, accounts of famous celebrity suicides, and assorted cartoons, whose effect is to suggest that suicide is easy and painless, a common, socially acceptable activity. Tsurumi sold his book to a movie studio, spawning a successful splatter film, which was followed by a sequel. He is now a highly paid celebrity speaker and a fixture on the international youth-culture circuit. As he told one inquiring reporter, “There’s nothing bad about suicide. We have no religion or laws here in Japan telling us otherwise. As for group suicides, before the Internet, people would write letters, or make phone calls … it’s always been part of our culture.”
Tsurumi’s unapologetic justification of his gruesome book did not sound strange at all to Japanese readers. Whereas in the West, suicide is generally seen as the needless act of desperate souls, or of the terminally ill, in Japan it is understood as a more or less rational decision that can be taken by perfectly sane individuals as well as by groups. Japan has a long history of families committing suicide together, as well as suicides by cults and militaristic groups, including kamikaze pilots, or samurai warriors who suffered dishonor and hoped to wipe the slate clean. What is shocking about the new suicide epidemic is not so much that it is a group activity as that people are choosing to kill themselves together with total strangers. The Perfect Suicide Manual has become the essential text of a decentralized death cult that takes orders from no one, and whose members meet on Web sites designed solely to support and strengthen their common intention to die.
Like suicide terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world, Japanese group suicide cannot be explained as a simple by-product of poverty, lack of education, or other common social ills. Many suicide victims went to good schools, had decent jobs, were raised in two-parent families, and could be seen as ordinary citizens of Asia’s safest and richest democracy. What Japanese and Arab Muslim cultures have in common is a powerful aversion to shame and a deep undercurrent of sympathy for martyrs. Those who embrace death can cancel out shame and dishonor and even become heroes through actions that make Western individualists shudder.
When suicide-positive cultures meet the Internet, those inhibitions that do exist are weakened. The spread of Internet communications makes it easy for suicide seekers, radical Islamists, pedophiles, and other fringe groups to meet online, away from the prying eyes of parents, spouses, and the police. Once online, it is easy for such groups to attract new members from the free-floating population of lonely, curious, or dissatisfied souls who exist in all times and places, and in all cultures. Instead of spending their time in prayer, or listening to sad music, or reading novels, or knitting, or taking care of too many cats, vulnerable and unstable members of society are socialized into virtual communities whose shared vocabulary and values become an antidote to loneliness, even as they propel their members toward death.
Logging on to the popular Japanese Web site 2Channel any night of the week, one can watch in real time as individuals meet online in the hope of finding suitable companions in death. On a more or less typical night, on a site called “Let’s die together in Shizuoka” (a city an hour from Tokyo on the bullet train), I sit in front of my computer screen and watch as the death script is rehearsed and elaborated by anonymous participants, some of whom may simply be exploring a radical idea, while others may soon be found dead in cars:
1. MOON: I don’t have any equipment ready, but my mind is ready to die anytime. I failed to commit suicide once in the past when I thought I should turn over a new leaf and try my hand at life again. But the black shadow in my heart remains. I’m always tired now. I want to go to sleep, never to wake up … I’m seeking someone who would come along to death’s river with me, with coal suicide …
3. HIROPON: I left home, nowhere to go back, I have no job, and my money is running out. I have nothing good in my life right now. If something good happens to me just one more time, and I am still thinking about death, then it will be time for me to die.
4. MOON: Dear Hiropon-san, Is it too selfish of me to ask you to let me know your e-mail address? Please say no if you don’t want to, and then I’ll tell you mine first. But if you don’t mind, let me know yours first …
9. A MIDDLE-AGED MAN: If you are still young and living with your parents, you shouldn’t commit suicide. But me, I’m a middle-aged man, in debt, no money, health problems, no job. Nothing in my life will improve if I stay alive. I guess I will either commit suicide, or die together with somebody who is garbage like me. When we get older, nobody stops us …
12. TAKA: How do you do, MOON-san, I live in Shizuoka as well. We can buy coals and a brazier at a home-center. All we would need then are sleeping pills. Let me join you …
31. MOON: My wish for death increases in inverse proportion to the speed of this conversation … If I’m told “We’ll die tomorrow, but there’s one more seat open. Would you like to come?” I would nod my head in a very casual way, as if to make an appointment to go out with a friend.