On the evening of May 2, 1998, as most of Japan was basking in the annual Golden Week holidays, a few dozen young women had gathered outside an apartment building in Tokyo’s Minamiazabu neighborhood.

Earlier that day, the musician Hideto Matsumoto, better known by his stage name hide, had returned to his home there after a night out drinking with members of his band at the time, Spread Beaver. An hour later, his girlfriend found him slumped with his head hanging from a ripped towel tied to a doorknob. He was taken to a nearby hospital, but pronounced dead just before 9 a.m.

Although there was no note, police announced that they were considering the death a suicide, and that’s how the media reported it. The Japan Times printed a small item on page two of its Sunday edition, under the headline “Guitarist for ‘X Japan’ kills himself at home.”

Yet during the coming week, hide’s death would unleash a torrent of collective grief that lingers in the popular memory 20 years later. Over the space of three days at Tsukiji Honganji Temple in central Tokyo, 50,000 people came to pay their final respects, the largest crowd ever recorded for a celebrity funeral in Japan. Blanket TV coverage helped amplify the already heated emotions; it was like the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Princess Diana rolled into one.

At the time, hide’s untimely demise seemed to mark a tragic epilogue in the story of the band with which he was indelibly associated, X Japan. Pioneers of the flamboyant heavy metal variant known as visual-kei, the group had become one of the most successful acts of the decade; its biggest-selling album, 1991’s “Jealousy,” stayed in the charts for 50 weeks and sold over a million copies.

Although he wasn’t the frontman or principal songwriter, hide’s charisma, musical chops and ostentatious dress sense — including his trademark pink hair — had made him an iconic figure. When X Japan disbanded at the end of 1997, after the sudden departure of vocalist Toshimitsu “Toshi” Deyama, he channeled his energies into an increasingly promising solo career.

His single “Rocket Dive,” released as hide with Spread Beaver, reached No. 4 on the Oricon charts in February 1998, selling more than 500,000 copies. A new solo album was due later in the year, backed by an extensive tour, along with the debut record by Zilch, a California-based group that he hoped would help him break into the international market.

The enthusiasm that hide projected during his final months made it hard for many to accept his sudden death. Fans immediately voiced doubts about the police’s suicide verdict, and his former bandmates have consistently maintained that they believe it was an accident. (While he was remembered as a generous and empathetic character, hide had a solid track record for acting recklessly while intoxicated.)

The story took a macabre turn when several fans attempted suicide themselves, including a 14-year-old girl in Tokyo, who took her own life using the same method as the rock star. Media coverage was partly to blame here: Even highbrow newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun reported hide’s apparent suicide with a degree of detail that would be considered irresponsible now.

Fans started gathering at Honganji as soon as it was announced as the funeral venue, and the crowd had swelled to over 10,000 by May 6, the day of the wake. At one point, a sudden stampede broke through the temple gates, as people tried to get a glimpse of their idol’s body. A 19-year-old girl slit her wrist with a craft knife after laying flowers at the temple, while a carload of fans from Osaka, driving through the night without sleep, caused a motorway pileup that left one person dead and seven seriously injured.

The remaining members of X Japan were prompted to hold a press conference at the temple on the evening of May 6 to call for calm.

On May 7, the lines for the funeral stretched for two kilometers along Harumi-dori and the banks of the Sumida River. It was the warmest day of the year so far, with temperatures hitting over 27 degrees Celsius, and the combination of heat and emotional exhaustion was too much for some; 197 people collapsed, and 56 had to be taken away by ambulance.

TV coverage relayed scenes of hysterical young women crumpling to the ground in tears, and police tackling someone who tried to rush after the departing hearse. The Yomiuri Shimbun captured the sense of frenzy, describing how “the shrieks of wailing fans mingled with the sirens of ambulances, creating a cacophony.”

The Asahi Shimbun, which featured an aerial photograph of the crowds on its front page the following day, offered a more flattering account. A description in the paper’s Tensei Jingo column praised the “devotion” of the youthful attendees, noting that fans had rallied together to collect trash, and concluded: “There was no great uproar. It was a good funeral.”

Not everyone was so sympathetic. Writing in Shukan Shincho magazine later that month, critic Kazuo Ijiri declared the event an “embarrassment,” and accused the weeping fans of lacking a sense of perspective. But to Shukan Hoseki magazine’s reporter, the emotional outpouring was a source of wonder rather than suspicion: “In an era that’s crying out for leaders, the thing that brought these people together wasn’t a nationally beloved singer, nor a politician, but the death of a guitarist from a rock band.”

The final word goes to a 14-year-old junior high school student interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun at the funeral: “The reason why so many people gathered here isn’t something that today’s grown-ups would understand.”

Even now, there’s probably still an element of truth to that.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 03-5774-0992 to access the TELL Lifeline. Operators are on hand from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. For more information on suicide prevention, visit www.telljp.com/lifeline/suicide-prevention.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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