Let’s Die Together

Why is anonymous group suicide so popular in Japan?

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?”

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.

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.
Neon Genesis Evangelion

The most influential Japanese cultural product of the last decade is an animated cartoon series called Neon Genesis Evangelion, originally broadcast on national television during 1995 and 1996; it has shaped the psyches of Japanese under 40 like nothing in recent Western cultural experience except perhaps the Beatles and the first Star Wars movies. The series, produced by a collective called Gainax and directed by the cult animator Hideaki Anno, is a dark, fractured narrative of the postapocalyptic adventures of four badly damaged young kids who join with powerful new technologies to save what remains of the Earth from the Angels, 17 heavenly immortals who spread terror and destruction and seek to bring about the end of humankind.

Distinguished less by the quality of its animation than by its dark subject matter, nonlinear storytelling, and heavy, depressive stoner vibe, the series is regularly praised by animators, novelists, cultural theorists, and visual artists as the flower of Japanese pop culture. It has been credited with defining gender roles, influencing attitudes toward the environment, and spawning the madly obsessive—and immensely profitable—otaku subculture embraced by tens of thousands of geeky fans who spend their lives unraveling the larger message of the show and collecting pornographic comic books featuring the show’s female characters.

In person, Hideaki Anno, dressed in a military-green jumpsuit and black boots, slouches deep in his battered office couch and glowers. In a country where conformity is still a virtue, Anno stands out on account of his curly black hair and large, cauliflower-shaped ears, which, in combination with his jumpsuit, give him the appearance of an angry hobbit in black-rimmed glasses. Before creating his famous anime, Anno went through a four-year-long depression, during which he did no work and spent most of his time alone in his room. In 2003, Gainax sold the live-action rights to Neon Genesis Evangelion to a film producer that is collaborating with Weta Workshop, a company whose principals include Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. I am particularly interested in talking to Anno about the character of Rei, a depressive, suicidal girl whose big eyes, girlish body, and blank expression have been the model for the central female characters in Japanese anime for the past decade.

“Rei is someone who is aware of the fact that even if she dies, there’ll be another to replace her, so she doesn’t value her life very highly,” Anno explains, slouching ever-deeper into the couch. “Her presence, her existence—ostensible existence—is ephemeral. She’s a very sad girl. She only has the barest minimum of what she needs to have. She’s damaged in some way; she hurts herself. She doesn’t need friends.”

Anno understands the Japanese national attraction to characters like Rei as the product of a stunted imaginative landscape born of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. “Japan lost the war to the Americans,” he explains, seeming interested in his own words for the first time during our interview. “Since that time, the education we received is not one that creates adults. Even for us, people in their 40s, and for the generation older than me, in their 50s and 60s, there’s no reasonable model of what an adult should be like.” The theory that Japan’s defeat stripped the country of its independence and led to the creation of a nation of permanent children, weaklings forced to live under the protection of the American Big Daddy, is widely shared by artists and intellectuals in Japan. It is also a staple of popular cartoons, many of which feature a well-meaning government that turns out to be a facade concealing sinister and more powerful forces.

Anno pauses for a moment, and gives a dark-browed stare out the window. “I don’t see any adults here in Japan,” he says, with a shrug. “The fact that you see salarymen reading manga and pornography on the trains and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn’t have seen 30 years ago, with people who grew up under a different system of government. They would have been far too embarrassed to open a book of cartoons or dirty pictures on a train. But that’s what we have now in Japan. We are a country of children.”

The children of Anno’s generation meet in places like Loft Plus One, a basement party space in Shinjuku that is decorated like an East Village dive and smells of chlorine. The occasion in this case is a book party for Karin Amamiya, a beautiful, right-wing punk-rock singer turned cultural gadfly who has recently written a memoir about wrist cutting, a behavior that is currently trendy among young girls. The scene in the basement is a flower-power nightmare version of the daytime variety shows on Japanese television. A singer named Akira, decked out in a lizard-skin suit, tan buckskin jacket, and straw hat, strums a guitar and sings, “Yes, this life is difficult to live.” Below the stage, a high-school girl is smoking a joint alone. She is dressed in a dark, romantic costume of bustled black skirts and a lace bonnet, a popular style known as Gothic Lolita.

The host for this section of the evening is a writer whose pen name, Con Isshow, means “the endless now.” A chain-smoker, dressed in a grubby green corduroy jacket and John Lennon–style glasses, he is a heavy drinker as well as the country’s leading expert on the social behavior of Japanese youth, even though, or perhaps because, he never graduated from college. His personal hygiene is terrible. Sweating under the lights, he surveys the room.

“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.