tjm Holden
Photo from Jisatsu saakuru (Suicide Club) (2002)

On-line suicide clubs, pornographic blogs, lethal chat rooms, and killer confessionals: Japan's webbed world is often a murky realm where the psychologically meek meet the morally interrupted. A peek inside ReDot's weird wild web.

"Today my mother is in a bad condition. She has been complaining of a worsening leg condition for a few days. She is finally unable to move."

So wrote a Japanese blogger on 12 September, 2005. The author, a 16-year-old high schooler; the object of her observations, currently lying in a coma, the victim of what now appears to be poisoning by thallium, a toxic, tasteless substance often used to kill rodents.

The young blogger has been taken into police custody on suspicion of attempted murder, in a case with the social magnitude of a level seven earthquake. The poisoning has not only rocked ReDotnation; its ripples have rattled round much of the world. Picked up by wire services, it has led many to wonder: "is Japan any longer the safe nation we have always thought it to be?" Or is this simply another strum of the age-old refrain, heard on every stage round the globe: "What is it with young people nowadays, anyway?"

Back in Japan, the young girl has claimed innocence; suggesting that the mother mistakenly drank the thallium that the daughter kept in her room for science experiments. Um . . . and may Inspector Clouseau be so bold as to query: "Why exactly would someone intentionally quaff from a laboratory beaker?" Even without the French detective hot on her trail, this Japanese lass is decidedly swimming against the evidentiary current. To wit:

She is said to have shown a strong interest in chemistry.

She once belonged to a chemistry club in school.

She bought thallium at a local drugstore and also over the Internet, using her real name and address.

Among her possessions was a Japanese translation of The St. Albans Poisoner: The Life and Crimes Graham Young. This book tells the tale of the British serial killer who poisoned his mother-in-law and colleagues during the 1960s and '70s. One of the substances used was thallium.

Photos of Graham Young were discovered in her room.

Her writings have indicated that Young was "a man I respect".

The girl references Young's diary, adopting his clinical style.

She has mentioned the powerful influence of a 1995 film, The Young Poisoner's Handbook, which was dubbed into Japanese and dramatizes Young's story.

Her writings also make reference to an Agatha Christie murder-mystery which mentions thallium.

She wrote in a dairy: "I got sympathy from my teacher when I tearfully talked about mother. I guess people are cheated more easily than I expected."

As is often the case in life: the cages that end up ensnaring us are of our own construction; fashioned from the residue of our furtive acts, decreed by the accretion of circumstance upon damnable circumstance.

And then, there is the blog. In it she admits to conducting chemical experiments, such as poisoning small animals, a fact that, if true, meshes with recent police reports about suspicious pet deaths in her immediate neighborhood. Other circumstantial facts: cat parts were found preserved in formalin in her room. This manifested itself in the blog confessional:

"To kill a living creature. The moment of sticking a knife into something. The warmth of the blood. The little sigh. It is all a comfort to me."

Her blog sported a man's name and employed male language — one presumes in an effort to shroud her identity. What seems spot-on, though, is the scientific eye the writer possesses — the clinical, dispassionate prose detailing how her experiment was exacting changes in her human specimen.

"It's a bright, sunny day today," she wrote in August, "and I administered a delivery of acetic thallium,". Later that month she penned: "Mother has been sick since yesterday, having a rash all over her body." In ensuing entries she spoke of her mother's difficulty in breathing and her delusions: "According to my aunt, my mother has started having hallucinations. She seems to be suffering from insects that don't exist or white shadows by the door." Near the end she reported, "I took a photo of her today as I did yesterday. My brother said I had a penetrating stare and that he was horrified."

Ultimately, it was this shocked sibling who reported the girl's activities to the police; too late, though, to reverse the damage to his Mom.

As her experiment caromed toward its final dark denouement, the girl logged this dry, remorseless complaint in her blog: "My mother will go to hospital tomorrow and nobody has yet found out what the cause is. To my regret, she is not covered by good insurance, so life will be a little difficult."

Well, that about says it all, doesn't it?

Actually not. Because what it really says lies beyond this pathetic creature treading in her moral quagmire, out in deeper discursive seas. Out there is an atoll that one might label the "land of foreshadowment". This is an oft-visited locale, marked by denizens ever-dogged by angst who engage in endless hand-wringing concerning the dark bent that Japanese youth may be taking. Because this is the endemic condition of these islanders (despite the fact that their society has so often been stereotyped as peaceful — with its constitution renouncing war and crime rates lower than many other advanced industrialized societies) its periodic public discourse has become hostage to fears of "obvious moral decline" and "impending spiritual enervation". High visibility cases such as the teenaged boy who beheaded a peer and placed body parts on his school gate can do that to a society. Numerous articles, like this one dating back to 1997 capture the utter panic that has invaded the consciousness of the archipelago this past decade regarding its youthful charges.

It is surely true that there has been a rather dramatic upsurge in criminal activity in the past decade. Yet, despite the arrhythmic heartbeats and sweat-beading collective brows, the reality on the ReDot atoll is that crime is still significantly less a perturbation than in other national ecologies. It is probably the fact that youth appear to be involved and, more, via the aegis of media, that has so many people clucking and fretting. According to this police report from a couple of years ago, meaningful increases have been seen in crimes such as robbery, rape, injury, intimidation, blackmail, fraud, child pornography, and child prostitution — all the result of cell phones and "dating" Internet web sites.

Whether Japan is in the midst of a web-spurred crime epidemic is open to question. But it doesn't help that a number of the most dramatic crimes have had Net-dimensions. Consider last year's case of the acidic chat room. It was in a private enclave — shared by three junior high school students deep in the bowels of the ReDotWeb — that one girl spoke ill of another to the third. The result: the dissed exacted revenge on her abuser by luring her into a deserted room at school and slashing her throat. In exchange for a few harsh words written on a screen, a life was taken.

Then there is the case of chat-based suicide. To understand what this is all about, we ought to first ponder the matter of suicide in Japanese society generally, and, even deeper, in ReDot culture. According to Joi Ito: "Japan's suicide rate tops 30,000 / yr. Over 3X the 10,000 or so automobile related deaths…Japan's suicide rate is among the top 10 in the world," a per-capita rate more than twice that in the United States. To be sure, Ito rightfully observes that "Most of the suicides are men in the 50's and 60's and often due to job related and financial stress". Nonetheless, the media has drawn particular attention over the past few years to the rising role of the Internet in what we might call "assisted", "partnered" or "group suicide". ("Paying for Suicide", 18 August 2002) Not to be confused with the recent horror flick, Jisatsu Sakaru (Suicide Circle), there has been a true mass migration toward collective suicide, assisted by so-called Internet 'suicide clubs'. According to the BBC, there were 26 cases of partnered suicide in a two-month span in 2004 (Andrew Harding, 7 December, 2004) and this trend has far from abated. Over the past year Internet chat rooms dedicated to the facilitation of suicide have proliferated, offering "how-to" pointers about setting up coal-burning stoves in confined spaces like cars sealed with duct tape, providing encouragement to depressed fence-sitters, and helping hook potential partners up for would-be expungement.

It may seem ghoulish, but there is something definitively Japanese about all this: the group-based action, the attention to instruction and detail, the open embrace of death. This may strike westerners as strange — folks whose contexts have generally been imbued with the prohibition against taking life — and especially one's own. This value stands at the core of Judeo-Christian gospel; but not so in Japan, which has long adopted a differing view of self annihilation. As Edwin O. Reischauer, a previous generation's preeminent Japanologist once put it: "suicide (in Japan) . . . is still considered an acceptable and basically honorable way to escape an intolerable situation."

At least one panoramic academic tome, Ivan Morris's Nobility of Failure, is an extended exploration of numerous high-profile historical models; models serving to speak to work-a-day Japanese that there is honor, if not meaning, in taking one's own life.

But all too often, one encounters simple supplication, rather than virtue, in Japanese suicide. People are stressed out — from work, from the anomic mass-society that presses against them from all angles, from a hyper-drive world rushing ahead of them but whipping them along by its centripetal force, tipping them off-kilter, incapable of gaining purchase — and, thus abused, they simply throw their hands up and relent. Yet, the act of self-termination may require more strength than they can muster; more self-determination than they can imagine. And this, thus, is where the web comes in.

For it is in chat rooms, with their warm familial ambiance, that would-be suicides in Japan often find the gumption to go ahead and cash their biological chips in. With an encouraging word, a "you can do it, buddy" here, a "let's try it together, there", these groups exert a powerful push against individual resistance; likely a resistance programmed into the human mechanism, but subject to communal revision. As one near-suicide was quoted saying: "then I visited a website and thought — ah, if I join this (group) I won't have to go through with it on my own. It's like crossing the road when the traffic light is red... it's not so scary when you're with others." ("Japan's Internet 'suicide clubs'")

Lemmings of Japan trip over themselves, to be the first among equals embracing mutual mass destruction.

And just when you thought the subject couldn't possibly grow any more morbid, consider this. In 2004, the Japanese weekly, Shunkan Bunshun, reported that a number of the wanna-be suicides have become preludes to victimization; young women have been duped by men (sometimes posing as women) into meeting for the purpose of a shared death, only to be drugged, raped and dumped back into a life of desolation, now made even more desperate from the shame of physical abuse and the psychic pain of misplaced trust. ("Take my life, but please don't sexually abuse me", Michael Hoffman, 4 November 2004).

While the sexual predation may raise ire, it is the suicide that has prompted political action. The web may be awash in pornographic blogs — inviting exploitation and providing an enormous cash cow for assorted ambitious entrepreneurs sans scruples — yet it was the suicide chat — the institutional legitimation of suicide — that has impelled authorities to intercede in the inter/concourse of the ReDotWeb. Thus was it in the summer of 2005, following a spate of partnered death cases, that the national government began drafting measures that would enable greater enforcement authority over the Internet. As reported in the Tallahassee Democrat, "The measures . . . include enhancement of the so-called cyber patrol, or monitoring of information on the Internet by police in an attempt to identify those planning group suicides." ("Japan moves to restrict information on Internet", 29 June 2005) To do so, police would be empowered to force ISPs to release personal information on webmasters who maintain sites encouraging suicide.

This road has quite a ways to go before it is fully hoed, so we are not yet able to conclude what police intervention might achieve. If one places stock in statistics or simply contemplates the nature of the webbed beast to date, it is hard to imagine any efficacious impact resulting. According to one source in the half year between October 2004 and April 2005 the number of active blogs trebled — from 380,000 to 910,000. A Japanese ministry report from the same period indicated that there were 3.3 million blogs up and running, with just under 1,000,000 posting at least one new entry a month. Given the fact that over one-third of all Japanese citizens (in excess of 40 million) engage in basic web tasks such as chat, it is hard to imagine how the police are ever going to shut down Japan's shadowy webbed world.

No matter how successful cyber patrolling may prove in the fight against web-based stalkers, extortionists, murderers, child predators and group suicides, there is something else that requires even more urgent attention. Rather than the tools of popular expression, it is the expressions, themselves, that demand public redress. Why are so many Japanese rushing to flee from life? What is it about contemporary existence in the ReDot realm that is so intolerable? How might we convince those living in one of the world's wealthiest, culturally complex, and historically rich countries, that there is more to live for than die for?

And more to blog or chat or mail or surf about, than how to kill or how to die.

* * *

Other sources used in this story:

Times Online, japantoday > pop vox, "Japanese girl keeps blog on poisoning mother", "Girl suspected of poisoning mother bought thallium at local store" (4 November 2005), "Japan's chilling Internet suicide pacts" (Kari Huus)

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