By Andrew Harding
BBC Asia correspondent
In Japan, the internet has been blamed for a spate of group suicides which appear to have been arranged in online chat rooms.
Andrew Harding talked to one young man searching for someone to die with.
Naoki Tachiwana opened his apartment door with a surprisingly warm smile, and beckoned us in to a neat living room. His computer was switched on - the screen facing out towards Naoki's eleventh floor balcony, and the night sky above Tokyo's eastern suburbs.
"Last night I was up all night," said Naoki, smiling again, "talking online to this woman who really - I mean really - wants to die. She asked me to do it with her today, but I said I couldn't because I had this television crew coming to see me. So she said we can do it after they've gone."
It had taken days of online research, emails and text messages to bring us here - face to face with a member of Japan's "internet suicide" community.
It is a growing, and morbidly frank underworld of chat rooms and websites with names like "Suicide Club," where thousands of (mainly young) people meet and talk and plan their deaths.
At least 26 people have died in this manner in the past two months.
The message boards are littered with personal ads like: "I have pills and charcoal briquettes - I'm looking for someone to die with," and "I'm 23 and want to die. I can travel anywhere."
I asked Naoki - a 34-year-old bank employee who has been off work with stress-related problems for six months - why he was considering joining a suicide group.
"Well, I'm depressed - and that's a disease," he said. "But to be honest, I think I've always been interested in killing myself." His enormous cat jumped down from a shelf and waddled over to the computer screen.
"I'd never thought about doing it in a group before," he continued. "But then I visited a website and thought - ah, if I join this 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."
High suicide rate
In recent months, dozens of Japanese have crossed that road together. In the last fortnight alone three groups of three people, and two groups of four have been found dead - usually gassed in cars on remote mountain roads.
Japan already has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and so far the internet-related deaths are only a small proportion. But it's a growing one.
"It's almost like a cult... these internet groups," argues Yukiko Nishihara, a Tokyo helpline worker. "When people are lonely and suicidal - but afraid of death - they find these websites which egg them on. There's an inhuman element to it."
But others see the sites very differently.
"There's nothing bad about suicide," said Wataru Tsurumi, author of a graphic, and best-selling handbook on the subject. "We have no religion or laws here in Japan telling us otherwise. As for group suicides - before the internet people would write letters, or make phone calls... it's always been part of our culture."
Ghoulish as many of the sites are - complete with skulls and dripping blood - many of their owners argue that they do more good than harm. Late one night in a crowded internet café in central Tokyo, we met up with a shy 24-year-old who wanted to be known by his online nickname - Ama Terasu.
"My site has a message board, and chat rooms and links to other sites," he told me. "It's a virtual world where you can talk about subjects you can't discuss in real life.
"There are some vicious sites which really encourage people to die, and when you get in a group there's a momentum which makes it hard to stop - people become irrational. But my site is not like that. I started it because I had tried twice to kill myself.
"I think it has saved my life - because it has enabled me to open up about things online. And I believe it can help others too."
Back in his small apartment, Naoki was still weighing up his options. He told me that he'd come close to killing himself the day before with another person, but that she'd pulled out at the last minute.
"This time," he said, "it's me who has got cold feet. I told the other woman who wanted to do it today that I was not ready to die so suddenly."
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised here and would like to talk to someone in confidence for details of further support and information, please call the BBC Action Line on 08000 566 787.
The lines may be busy, so please remember that the Action Line is open seven days a week, from 0730 GMT until midnight. All calls are free and confidential. Andrew Harding's film was screened on Tuesday, 7 December, 2004.
Newsnight is broadcast on BBC Two at 1030pm every weeknight in the UK.
Story from BBC NEWS: BBC NEWS | Programmes | Newsnight | Japan's internet 'suicide clubs'
Published: 2004/12/07 12:08:47 GMT
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Suicide manual author Wataru Tsurumi says suicide has always been part of Japanese culture...
Is it a part of Japanese culture? Like eating raw horse flesh ice cream? Something kewl?