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In wake of Zama killings, organizations highlight hazards of suicide-linked web content

Kyodo, JIJI, Staff Report

Domestic nonprofit groups are urging increased efforts to prevent suicide, as the recent discovery of nine dismembered bodies in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, has once again highlighted the ease with which information about ending one’s life can proliferate online.

Officials at suicide prevention organizations have expressed shock over the Zama case, in which 27-year-old Takahiro Shiraishi admitted to killing nine people since late August. Police said he came to know the nine through Twitter and killed them after luring them to his apartment, saying he would help them take their own lives.

A Tokyo-based suicide prevention center, which operates a nighttime hotline, says they receive phone calls continuously from 8 p.m., when their operations start. Annually, they take about 12,000 calls.

Toru Igawa, head of the center’s secretariat, says the organization endeavors to be available during the times of the day when callers are most likely to be troubled, in the hope that callers will “think twice” before attempting suicide.

One of Shiraishi’s alleged victims posted on her Twitter account in September that she wanted to die but was “scared of dying alone.”

In many cases, those who contemplate suicide stop themselves as they are unable to overcome a fear of dying.

Igawa laments that the internet can make things worse. “It may now be easier to overcome that hurdle after finding online companions (for suicide attempts),” he said, adding that his group is working hard to persevere in its suicide prevention efforts.

Eiichi Shinohara, director of another suicide prevention group, said he had been worried about the risk of an incident like the Zama killings.

Shinohara, whose group is based in Chiba Prefecture, spoke of the value of life during a recent lecture for junior and senior high school students.

“I feel that recently, the way one looks at life is becoming less serious,” he said.

Shinohara said more and more people are becoming isolated in urban settings and forming fewer relationships, indicating that Shiraishi’s female victims may have alienated themselves from society.

“Wasn’t there anyone around (the victims) who could have stopped them?” Shinohara said, adding that the issue is not something that can be tossed aside as someone else’s problem. He said efforts must be made to learn from the case.

People with serious troubles could be vulnerable to the danger of connecting with strangers online, just as in the Zama case.

Twitter and other social media sites, as well as online message boards, are swamped with messages such as “Soliciting people to die,” and “If we gather, charcoal (burning) is desired” — in reference to the suicide method. There are also websites showing photos of what appear to be massive pills.

Takae Moriyama, representative of a nonprofit organization called 3keys — which provides support for youth issues — warned of the ease of finding information about suicide online.

“One can easily access websites on suicide just by typing ‘I want to die’ into a search engine,” Moriyama said.

The number of reports filed with Japan’s Internet Hotline Center about online posts that induce people to attempt suicide or warn of suicide attempts came to 257 last year. For cases considered urgent, police attempt to identify those uploading the posts and persuade them not to kill themselves.

The 2016 total included 242 reports related to domestic websites, said the center, commissioned by the National Police Agency to accept reports from internet users about illegal information.

According to the NPA, the police last year received information about 156 people after making inquiries to site operators and others about urgent online suicide warnings. Of those cases, three people were already dead and five were rescued after suicide attempts. Police prevented 43 people from taking their lives, while 79 were found to carry no risk of suicide. Details were unavailable for the remaining 26 cases.

Nobuo Komiya, a Rissho University professor of criminology, said many of those who want to take their own lives suffer from deep-rooted stress, and online messages from a stranger can be “perceived as someone who understands him or her.”

This feeling makes them more likely to arrange a meeting, Komiya said.

Despite such dangers, the reality is that it is hard to regulate such sites.

“It is hard to judge the extent of the dangers (of such sites), and to ramp up a crackdown will trigger a major argument since it would have to deal with (discussions of) freedom of expression,” a senior official at the Justice Ministry said.

The official said that for now, “police will have to continue their game of cat-and- mouse, issuing a warning every time during their online patrols.”

Japan’s suicide rate is the sixth highest in the world and the second worst among eight major industrialized nations, government data showed in May, reporting on 2016 figures.

The government’s white paper showed hat the number of people who took their own life declined to 21,897 in 2016, the lowest level in 22 years. But the figures also show that suicide was the top cause of death among people in five age groups from 15 to 39, a trend that stands out amid a decline in other generations.