One of the virtues of the Internet is its ability to create bonds, and even establish digital communities across the planet. But in Japan, a darker use is emerging. [Editor's note: The original version had an incorrect dateline.]
Young people in a nation with a underlying suicide culture are now tapping the Web to spawn a lethal trend: group suicides.
Suicide websites, with black backgrounds and foreboding imagery, offer detailed instructions on ways to take one's own life. The sites display postings such as "looking for a friend to kill myself with," as well as calls for mass suicides on specific dates in designated areas.
"This is the first time that people are meeting strangers for the purpose of committing suicide together. It is truly a modern phenomenon," says Yukio Saito, one of the founders of a Tokyo suicide hotline.
In just the first three months of 2005, there have been 20 cases in Japan of group suicide after individuals met on the Web, resulting in 54 deaths. That compares to 19 such cases and 55 deaths for all of last year.
Lonely young men from various walks of life comprise the bulk of the suicide sites' users, most of them seeking out others with whom to commit suicide. "People [posting on the sites] do not want to die alone," says Mr. Saito, a Methodist minister.
Japan's overall suicide rate exceeded the 30,000 mark for the seventh year in a row in 2004, reports the National Police Agency (NPA). Men accounted for 70 percent of the total.
Suicide is the most common cause of death among Japanese in their 20s and 30s. The World Health Organization puts the country's suicide rate per capita at more than twice that of the United States, and higher than any other economically advanced nation.
In one widely publicized case last year, a group of nine committed suicide in the Saitama Mountains west of Tokyo after meeting on a suicide site. In recent months, several groups have poisoned themselves by inhaling carbon monoxide from charcoal stoves - increasingly the method of choice - after meeting on the Web.
Some experts point to a distorted understanding of death as part of the cause. Thanks to modern medicine and long life expectancies, "[Japanese youth] do not often experience the death of immediate family or friends," says Shinji Shimizu, a sociologist at Nara Women's University. He says that too often young people's only experience with death comes from violent video games, which can be reset once a player 'dies.' [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly referred to Shimizu as "she."]
Other experts blame the high suicide rate on the nation's chronic recession, the end of lifetime employment, and a jobless rate that has doubled in the past decade. Some Japanese youth also cite bullying and breaking up with their girlfriends or boyfriends.
Japan harbors a historical fascination with suicide, and various terms have long sprinkled the island nation's vocabulary. Hara kiri denotes a samurai's suicide - a way to "honorably" escape from death at the hands of an enemy - or to escape disgrace. Shinju is the double suicide of two lovers, oyako is the suicide of an entire family, obasute is the suicide of the elderly, and the infamous word kamikaze is remembered all over the world.
"People often get praised for committing suicide in Japan," says journalist Michael Zielenziger, whose forthcoming book "Shutting Out the Sun" deals with the issue.
Most experts agree that today's Web-coordinated suicides in Japan are not about noble exits as much as about trying to escape pain and loneliness.
But suicide is not a crime in Japan, and there is little open discussion of the issue. "People just shrug their shoulders and say 'shoganai' [I can't do anything about it]," says Mr. Zielenziger.
Still, there are signs of gradual change. In this year's national healthcare budget, spending for suicide prevention was boosted by 30 percent. And three weeks ago, the government announced a campaign to encourage Internet service providers (ISPs), schools, and public offices to use filtering software to block suicide sites, as well as to promote the development of filtering software for cell phones.
Some, however, are skeptical. "There are many ways to get around filtering software," says Allen Kush, deputy executive director of WiredSafety, an Internet security and privacy organization. He says Japanese characters could be written in their phonetic equivalents, or could be modified to make it harder for detection software to work.
The government is also working out guidelines for police to ask ISPs to disclose details on individuals disseminating harmful information online. Suicide sites themselves are not illegal, but ISPs do sometimes block access to certain messages.
Experts say they know of no such sites in the US. Korea, Taiwan, and China have seen a rise in sites and related suicides. Last month, Australia passed a law banning suicide sites, including fines of up to $430,000.
Some Japanese, however, oppose an outright ban, as sites occasionally serve as discussion forums. "The writing itself is quite therapeutic," says Saito. "Some suicide survivors I have talked to were pleased to find out that so many other people were posting messages, because they felt they were not alone."