National / Social Issues

Japanese police step up cyberpatrols to counter growing amount of online info urging suicide

JIJI

Police are stepping up cyberpatrols in cooperation with companies and nonprofit organizations to crack down on the increasing amount of information online that encourages people to kill themselves.

In 2017, the dismembered bodies of one man and eight women, aged between 15 and 26, were found in an apartment in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture. A 27-year-old man, who was arrested and later confessed to the killings, used multiple Twitter accounts to contact people who had expressed suicidal wishes, offering to help them die.

The case prompted the National Police Agency to commission private monitoring companies in January 2018 to conduct cyberpatrols, telling them to report to the Internet Hotline Center when they discover worrisome phrases, such as “Let’s die together.” The IHC, when necessary, asks internet service providers and site operators to delete such information.

The IHC received 1,329 such reports in the first six months of 2018 and asked for the deletion of information in 1,255 of them, of which 842 were erased within 14 days of the requests.

In emergency cases where suicidal attempts are determined to be imminent, monitoring companies directly report to prefectural police departments. In cooperation with internet service providers, the police then find the people expressing such thoughts and try to prevent them from taking their own lives.

Of the 204 people who declared their intentions to die by suicide in 2017, 74 were saved after police either persuaded them not to do so or asked their families to keep watch on them, according to a government report.

Jiro Ito, a 34-year-old chief representative of OVA, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization established to prevent suicide, is promoting a system that creates pop-up notices leading to a consultation website if people search the internet using phrases such as “I want to die” or “how to commit suicide.”

On the website, clinical psychotherapists and other experts listen to visitors and help them get treatment at hospitals or receive advice from local governments. When necessary, OVA staff write reports on problems on behalf of those people or accompany them to hospitals or local governments.

In fiscal 2018, 283 people received advice from OVA on a continuing basis. One of them was a woman in her 20s who shut herself off from society after failing to find a job. She made an internet search with the words “I want to die.”

As she showed signs of depression, OVA helped her find a psychosomatic medicine hospital and begin receiving treatment there. She eventually recovered and landed a full-time job, according to the group.

“As people who seek means of suicide on the internet are considered highly likely to attempt it, the elimination of suicide-inducing information is not enough,” said Hajime Sueki, associate professor of clinical psychology at Wako University, who serves as adviser to OVA.

“It is important to create environments that enable people with suicidal wishes to readily gain information on how and where they can get support,” Sueki said.