Let’s Die Together

Why is anonymous group suicide so popular in Japan?

“Wrist-cutters, raise your hands. Pill freaks, raise your hands. Those who were hikikomori—acutely withdrawn—“and did not leave your rooms, raise your hands,” Con Isshow intones, and the kids politely obey his instructions.

“Those who have tried shudan jisatsu—group sui­cide—“raise your hands.” In the far corner of the dark club, a lone guy in a tan sweater raises his hand, then ducks as if to avoid the spotlight.

Takaya Shiomi looks on from the stage in disapproval. Now in his 60s, with salt-and-pepper hair and the benevolent-seeming, steely gaze of a proletarian dictator, Shiomi is the former commander of the Red Army Faction, a terrorist group that styled itself as the Japanese arm of the worldwide Marxist revolution. In 1970, under Shiomi’s leadership, members of the group hijacked a plane to North Korea; later they taught the art of airplane hijacking to followers of the Palestinian terrorist George Habash. (In 1972, three members of the Red Army Faction, under the direction of Habash, killed 26 tourists and wounded dozens more at Israel’s Lod Airport.) Having spent two decades in jail, Shiomi lives quietly in the outer suburbs of Tokyo. He rests his chin on his knuckles, as the counterculture speakers address their favorite themes of self-mutilation and suicide.

“Who the hell are you people?” Shiomi finally spits out, grabbing the microphone. “I know that life is hard. I was young once, too. It’s easy to become a nihilist, and to care about nothing, and to think that everything is shit. The ultimate answer to that kind of thinking is jail. If you want to feel good about your life, you need to do something real! Understand the world! Study ideology!”

Amamiya, who traveled with Shiomi to North Korea a few years back, a journey that the right-wing Japanese media called a deliberate act of provocation, has heard enough. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know all that,” she says, dismissing the aging terrorist with a smirk.

As the party winds down, I exit the club with the guy in the tan sweater. He is almost 30, his name is Toji, and he lives in Shizuoka, Moon’s hometown. We wander together through the scruffy underside of Shinjuku, a warren of strip clubs and bars and noodle counters, and wind up at a Chinese restaurant, favored by Taiwanese gangsters, that serves excellent dumplings. We take a table in the back room.

Listening to Toji’s account of his fascination with suicide is like hearing any story of indoctrination into a cult, absent the evil mastermind who would persuade his followers to sign over their worldly possessions and drink poisoned Flavor Aid in a South American jungle. As Toji describes his growing obsession with online chat groups, a compulsion that brings to mind other behavioral addictions like smoking or gambling, there is something distant about his manner. He might as well be reciting the periodic table. In college he became interested in politics and economics but was unable to make friends or date women. When he graduated in 1997, he was still a virgin. He began a job marketing loans to small and midsized businesses. He did not enjoy sales, and all he could think about was quitting. In the evenings he would come home to his parents’ house and surf the Web, in the same bedroom he inhabited as a boy.

“I would look at sites like Yahoo Japan, the news on it and stuff,” he explained. He was also a fan of Ayumi Hamasaki, a B-movie actress turned pop star known for her elaborately costumed sexuality and the banal lyrics she composes under a bewildering number of pseudonyms. He visited her fan site often and contributed to bulletin boards, an involvement that lasted for two years but did not produce any deep personal relationships. Feeling more depressed than ever, he began to visit suicide sites.

“Things weren’t going well at work, and I thought that it was better to [commit suicide] than to keep on showing my stupid self to others,” Toji explained. “I wanted the people around me to think that I was a ‘good person.’ So I would hold my own feelings deep inside me.” He left his old job and found a new one, yet his interest in suicide only grew stronger. He preferred the idea of killing himself with others, even strangers, because he lacked the courage to die alone.

“The idea of sharing death together, and also the idea of dying of carbon monoxide, so that the death would be easy or less painful, interested me,” he said. He would visit the suicide sites for 20 minutes each time, hoping to limit his exposure to the depressing content but also curious to see if a group might seem right. He began to think about suicide in practical terms. The location had to be close, and he started to consider the best size for the group and whether they would have enough sleeping pills for a successful suicide, since even mild narcotics like sleeping pills are tightly controlled in Japan.

Two weeks after our first meeting, Toji sent me a message agreeing to my request for a second interview. His plans were more advanced, he said. I took the Tokaido line to Hara, where he met me at the station. He spoke intelligently but across a wide gulf, without the reassuring flatteries, tensions, and warmth of normal conversation.

As a child, he said, he collected train timetables, and woke up early to take pictures of the trains that ran through town. His favorite trains were the Blue Train in South Africa and the Falcon in Japan. Once, his family rode the Romance Car on the Odakyu express, to see relatives in Saitama. Several years after Toji took his first job, his parents told him they had always imagined he would take a job related to trains. His parents expected him to have a good job someday, and a family.

“This is so painful,” he told me, showing emotion for the first and only time in our conversations. What was missing in his life, he decided, was passion. If he had passion, he would walk lightly. He once took medication for depression, but stopped when a new doctor replaced his old one at the local hospital. He found the new doctor arrogant and off-putting.

“He personally thinks that taking these pills is the same as taking insulin for a diabetic,” my translator explained. “But because the people around him don’t think so, he is forced to think the same way that they do, and stay off the pills.”

Toji is a person for whom the affluent, increasingly insecure but still tightly controlled society of 21st-century Japan has no real use. Later that evening, we drive to his house, where he sleeps alone in his childhood bedroom; it’s a room with bare walls, a single bed, a desk, a chest of drawers, a shelf of books, and a new Sony PlayStation 2 on the floor. His sister, whose bedroom is down the hall, has never had a boyfriend and will not allow her brother inside her room.

In the three weeks since I last saw him, Toji tells me, he has visited his favorite suicide sites two or three times a week, for about 10 minutes each time. When he is online, the dullness and depression lift, and he feels his life has a purpose that is clear. Soon, he says, he will find companions who are serious about dying, and who will allow him to join their group.

Presented by

David Samuels, whose last piece for The Atlantic was a profile of Yasir Arafat, was a 2006 Japan Society Media Fellow.

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