updated 10/12/2004 5:28:21 AM ET 2004-10-12T09:28:21

Police found seven young people slumped over dead in a deserted van outside Tokyo on Tuesday in what was believed to be Japan’s biggest-ever group suicide, while also finding a pair of women dead in an apparent suicide pact in a car at a temple.

The cases — involving young people in their teens and 20s — raised alarm over suicide agreements, many of which are made by people who meet over the Internet. They have claimed dozens of lives and shocked Japan over the past several years.

Tuesday’s suicide of four young men and three women in the van would be the largest group suicide yet, the National Police Agency said.

Authorities found the rented van in a deserted mountain lot after a friend of one of the seven who had received an e-mail hinting at suicide called the police, but officers failed to reach it in time, a police spokesman in Saitama prefecture, just outside Tokyo, said on condition of anonymity.

The van windows were sealed with vinyl tape from the inside and the seven were found slumped over in their seats, the spokesman said. A woman sat in the driver’s seat, while the six others sat in two rows behind her.

Investigators found four charcoal stoves in the car that they believe the group used to poison themselves. No external wounds or signs of a struggle were found.

The Saitama police said they believed the seven died of carbon monoxide poisoning, and ordered autopsies.

In a separate incident, two women were found dead in a car parked outside an isolated temple in Yokosuka, about 60 miles to the southeast, a Kanagawa prefecture police spokesman said. They were in the car’s back seat, with two charcoal stoves on the floor. The car windows were sealed with a black plastic tarp.

Police said it was not immediately known whether the two cases were related. They were still trying to determine the identities of the men and women.

Officials say suicide pacts have been made over the Internet since at least the late 1990s, and have been reported everywhere from Guam to the Netherlands.

But they’ve been happening in Japan in especially large numbers, where suicide in general is at record highs.

According to the National Police Agency, 45 people committed suicide in groups after meeting each other over the Internet between January 2003 and June 2004. An official at the agency, also demanding anonymity, said seven was the largest known group to commit suicide together.

Suicide sites, often designed with an ominous, pitch-black background, post disclaimers about the dangers of their content. Delving further into the sites leads to chat rooms spilling over with death wishes and exchanges of ideas on how best to take your own life.

Some sites offer “shopping lists” detailing materials necessary for self-asphyxiation as well as ready-made packages available for a price.

The spate of Internet-linked group suicides have led to calls for the government to close suicide message boards down, but experts say the problem lies more with a lack of suicide prevention efforts, not with people discussing death over the Web.

Shinji Shimizu, professor at Nara Women’s University, said group suicides could be on the rise because young Japanese are not exposed to death as much as in previous generations as fewer relatives die around them.

“Young people today don’t have a sense of reality about death,” Shimizu said. “They are approaching it as an extension of a game in cyberworld.”

Japan’s suicide rates are among the highest in the world. The number of Japanese committing suicide last year exceeded 32,000 to mark the record high.

Officials have blamed a decade-long economic slump for an increasing number of people killing themselves, a trend particularly strong among middle-aged men. Younger people have cited concerns about bullying, romantic breakups or abusive family members for wanting to kill themselves.

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