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.”