When Suicide Conflicts With Japan's Polite Society

Police enter an apartment in Japan where a girl killed herself with the increasingly popular method of mixing household chemicals. The damage was more widespread: 90 people in her building were sickened by the fumes.
Police enter an apartment in Japan where a girl killed herself with the increasingly popular method of mixing household chemicals. The damage was more widespread: 90 people in her building were sickened by the fumes. (Kyodo News Via Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

TOKYO -- Japan's new recipe for killing oneself is being purged from the Internet at police request. Drugstores are pulling ingredients from shelves.

Still, three more young people were found dead over one week earlier this month, part of the latest fad in Japanese suicide -- painless death by stinky detergent fumes. A recent headline in the Weekly Asahi, a respected newsmagazine, noted that "The Remains Turn Green Like Aliens."

About 300 people -- most of them in their 20s and 30s -- have died in Japan in the past year by mixing common cleaning agents and inhaling the resulting hydrogen sulfide. The number has soared this spring, with about 50 deaths in April. The trend's epicenter is central Tokyo, where since January at least 34 young people have taken the fumes.

Suicide by hydrogen sulfide does more than turn bodies green. As the Japanese press has exhaustively explained, it can sicken people nearby.

The colorless gas, which smells like rotten eggs, is heavier than air. When it escapes a room where someone wants to die, it tends not to dissipate. At near-lethal concentrations, it can drift into nearby apartments in this crowded country. When a junior high school girl killed herself in April, more than 100 neighbors were evacuated and 14 were hospitalized.

Culturally, Japan has a high threshold of suicide tolerance.

Ritual self-disembowelment with a sword was an admired way of maintaining one's honor in feudal times and through World War II. Using tidier, less painful techniques, suicide survives as an escape hatch for modern Japanese unwilling to endure shame or failure. The minister of agriculture hanged himself last year before he was due to answer questions about bookkeeping fraud.

Unlike Christianity, which proscribes suicide as a sin, major religions here, Buddhism and Shintoism, are neutral on the matter. More than 30,000 Japanese kill themselves annually. Among industrialized democracies, Japan, South Korea, Hungary and Finland are perennial leaders in suicide per capita. Japan's rate is almost double that of the United States.

Death by detergent fumes, however, appears to have exceeded Japanese tolerance levels, primarily because most of the dead are gloomy young people.

They find the recipe online. Then they gather in small groups to mix up a batch and die together in apartments or cars. To head them off, Internet providers have followed police instructions and removed at least 56 references to the recipe recently.

The hydrogen-sulfide fad is part of a persistent trend in Internet-assisted suicide that police in Japan began tracking in 2003.

That's when would-be suicides using anonymous screen names began hooking up online with like-minded strangers. They arranged dates at which they would overdose on sleeping pills. Alternatively, they would pack into a car and kill themselves with carbon monoxide. There were 61 such cases, with 180 deaths, between 2003 and 2005, according to press accounts.

Last summer -- after the agriculture minister hanged himself -- the government allocated $220 million for suicide prevention, including counseling and screening of Web sites.

"We have to create a society that gives people a second chance if they fail," Sanae Takaichi, a cabinet minister, said at the time. The government wants to cut the suicide rate by 20 percent by 2016.

Japan, though, remains a country where bullying in schools and torment at work are commonplace. And since the economic swoon of the 1990s, about 30 percent of all jobs are part time. These low-status jobs depress incomes and, apparently, spirits. About half of those who commit suicide are unemployed.

As a suicide method, hydrogen sulfide has a cultural drawback in Japan. It is impolite to those who are not interested in dying.

Suicide advocates on the Web instructed readers to first put up warning signs. In late April, a 31-year-old man who died in his car of hydrogen sulfide poisoning taped this note to his windshield: "Don't come near -- poisonous gas."

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