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The discovery Sunday of the bodies of four young Japanese men in a car at a vista point near Mount Fuji appears to be more evidence of a grim new trend in the prosperous country — group suicides of strangers who meet over the Internet. The suicide pacts, which have resulted in at least 18 deaths since February, are shocking to experts, even in a nation plagued by an astronomical suicide rate.

Police were still investigating this latest case, but on its face, it looked eerily like others that have followed a general pattern: The victims are normally young and meet over the Internet through a burgeoning number of suicide-related sites, chat rooms and bulletin boards in Japanese — sites where participants are online not to dissuade, but to support one another in their desires for suicide.

In the latest confirmed case in early May, the victims were a man, 30 years old, and two women, 22 and 18. None had apparently known the others before meeting on line, where they started planning their suicide. As in several other cases, they died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a coal-burning stove after sealing themselves in a room with plastic sheeting and duct tape. Others have taken their lives by the same method — touted by Web sites as fast and painless — in cars parked in remote mountain areas. Still other suicide pacts have been averted, or ended in injury but not death, as in the case of two girls — 14 and 17 — who jumped off a five-story building together.

The group WiredSafety, which has 10,000 volunteers around the world visiting online chat rooms watching for people who prey on children, reports that it has come across many Japanese suicide sites, including sites that encourage participants to overdose together on camera.

“We are picking up a lot (of suicide sites) that are just in Japanese,” says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety. “We report them to local law enforcement, or the ISP to have them take down the sites. But they just pop up someplace else.” Some sites are expressly for meeting suicide partners, while others suggest the best ways to commit the act, including how to get the charcoal stoves, and prepare the car or other site.

“The way they bill it is, ‘If you’re going to do it, don’t hurt yourself — do it right’,” says WiredSafety director of security, who goes only by the pseudonym Gambler. “They portray themselves as philanthropists.”

While mental health experts in Japan don’t actually blame the Internet for the recent cluster of suicides, the cases highlight some of Japan’s unique social problems and its dismal response to a growing mental health crisis.

Topping a list of possible reasons given for the suicides is extreme alienation among Japanese youth.

“Generally, they have a serious emotional problem, which is that they have difficulty dealing with others face-to-face, a kind of phobia or fear of talking about their feelings in front of others,” says Yukio Saito, a Methodist minister who founded the country’s first suicide-prevention hotline. “Maybe this is quite a Japanese-type emotion. They have difficulty having personal relationships, so they tend to use the Internet to communicate their feelings.”

He speculates that people seeking suicide partners online are people still looking for companionship, even in death. “One single suicide seems quite awful and wrong,” Saito says. “But a double suicide has, in a sense, affection and peace, solace.”

Withdrawing from the world
The pressures to perform in school and on the job in Japan are legendary, as are the pressures that parents put on their children to keep up appearances.

Saito notes another syndrome among young people called “hikikomori” — a withdrawal from society for months or, in some cases, years at a time. Often hikikomori sufferers confine themselves to a bedroom in their parents’ home, where many Japanese tend to live until they are married. By some estimates, about 1.2 million young people or about 1 percent of the total have slipped into this state of self-imposed isolation, cutting off contact with the outside, and barely communicating with those around them. As one recovered hikikomori sufferer described the condition in an interview with a Japanese paper, she became much like a “family pet” in the household who did little more than eat and sleep.

In Japan, even for the home-bound, the Internet is one way to communicate. With about 40 percent of the population online, it is one of the world’s most wired nations. In addition, there are 1.5 mobile phones for every person in Japan, so trains, shopping malls and schools are beeping with calls, or humming with quiet “instant messaging.”

While there is companionship to be found electronically, the online world has its perils.

The inability to express themselves or rebel has fueled the euphoria that Japanese young people feel when they log on and talk to strangers, says Mitsuyo Ohira, a lawyer who wrote the best-selling book “And So Can You” about survival of her own suicide attempts as a teen.

“In the virtual realm of the Internet ... many such youngsters feel they can open up to strangers because everyone is ‘faceless,’ so to speak,” she said, speaking with the daily Asahi Shimbun about the recent suicides. “They reveal their honest thoughts and their Net buddies reciprocate. This convinces them they have finally met their true soulmates for the first time in their lives. But unfortunately, this is an illusion.”

Suicide epidemic
The problem is by no means confined to the young. In 2001, there were a reported 31,042 suicides in Japan. It was the fourth year in a row in which the number topped 30,000 — a per-capita rate more than twice that in the United States.

As a decade-long recession has deepened, company restructuring has led to layoffs, bankruptcies and homelessness — unprecedented in the affluent nation. It has radically altered the landscape for Japanese who witnessed the steadily growing prosperity of the post-World War II period.

In 2001, amid a shocking rise in the number of suicides by middle-aged professionals, the Japanese government for the first time allotted money to suicide prevention.

In a macabre sign of the times, a task force considered ways to redesign buildings to prevent people from jumping to their deaths. Train stations began installing “suicide mirrors” and barriers to prevent people from leaping onto the tracks.

Meanwhile, life insurance companies have canceled payouts or lengthened the wait for payouts where suicide is the cause of death, following criticism that payouts were in some cases an incentive for suicide.

The Japanese government started funding suicide awareness programs and issued a booklet to corporations to be on the lookout for danger signs among employees and called on companies to offer counseling.

It also gave money to bolster Saito’s fledgling suicide prevention hotline, Federation of Inochi No Denwa, or Lifeline, which Saito had been running on a shoestring since 1971.

The service provided a key feature — anonymity — in a country where the shame of mental health problems runs extremely deep. It has been deluged.

Lifeline now has 8,000 trained counselors at 50 call centers across the nation open 24-hours a day. In 2001, Lifeline received more than 700,000 calls, of which nearly 25,000 were related to suicide.

Saito says Lifeline has also been considering offering online help, but hasn’t yet worked out training and confidentiality issues.

Lifeline, however, remains a bright spot against the backdrop of the rather dismal mental health care system in the country.

While mental health care is widely available in Japan, it is heavily centered in mental institutions. Newer medications, including most anti-depressants common in the United States, are not widely available.

And out-patient counseling, where it exists, is still in its infancy.

“Japanese psychiatrists in private practice see patients for five to 10 minutes for just medication management after the patients wait for one to two hours,” says Dr. Masafumi Nakakuki, a U.S.-certified psychiatrist in Tokyo. It is just one example, he says, of “mechanical non-human communication between Japanese mental health professionals and their patients. It creates a sense of isolation among people,” pushing them further into loneliness.

Many Japanese mental health professionals are calling for expanded counseling and public awareness programs to lessen the stigma of treatment. Saito of Lifeline calls for school-based suicide prevention programs similar to those run in the United States, but he concedes that the job might fall to parents. “One strong fear among Japanese is that talking about suicide with youngsters might prompt them to be suicidal.”

In trying to explain Japan’s high suicide rate, it’s hard to ignore the influence of the samurai tradition, which glamorizes suicide as a warrior’s way to honorably escape from death at the hands of an enemy — or to escape disgrace. The practice occasionally resurfaces, as in the case of one of modern Japan’s most celebrated authors, Yukio Mishima, who performed seppuku — ritual suicide by sword — in 1970, in protest of Japan’s post-World War II weakness. A nationalist, Mishima longed for a return to imperial rule. Japan also has a tradition of double suicide or “shinjuu” but that practice involves lovers, not strangers.

Experts say Japanese are more accepting of suicide than people in Christian cultures that traditionally viewed it as sinful.

Still, they say, the current trend in Japan is largely not about a noble exit, but about an escape from isolation and pain. The careful planning behind the Internet pacts suggests to some the depths of that isolation and pain.

“What these kids are doing is ‘advertising’ for suicide partners on the Net, then waiting patiently for someone to respond to the ad,” says author Ohira. “Imagining the state of mind they must be in while they wait, I must conclude this is a new and different kind of suicide from anything we’ve ever known.”

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