While the six people she had met for the first time only earlier in the day helped tie each other together and seal the car’s windows with tape, Maria calmly wrote a final note to her two daughters.
25 Oct 2004
“Mother is going to die now, but I was happy that I gave birth to you,” it read.
Shortly afterwards, in an isolated car park surrounded by woodland an hour north of Tokyo, the carbon monoxide fumes from four charcoal burners overcame the seven and 34-year-old Maria’s ambition for the past four years was realised.
As more details of the 12 October deaths of the four men and three women in Minano, plus another two women in a separate incident the same day in the town of Yokosuka, have emerged, a country that has become hardened to suicide is suddenly asking itself how it might stop the next group suicide.
And mental health professionals are warning of a spate of copy-cat suicides.
The problems the authorities face are twofold: Regulating the internet sites that bring like-minded people together to go through with these death pacts, and countering the utter determination that people like Maria have to die.
“When I first saw her, I thought she was beautiful, like an actress,” said Tetsuya Shibui, who runs a website that offers help for people facing problems, including those who are contemplating suicide.
“She dressed very well and looked like a model.
The group sealed the car and lit charcoal burners to inhale fumes
“We first met online in 2000 and although we were in contact on the net frequently, we only met face-to-face around 20 times,” he said.
Shibui provided Aljazeera.net with Maria’s family name, but requested that it not be printed to protect the identities of her two children and “because she was my friend”.
The last time they met was in a bar in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district on the evening of 23 September.
Eleven days later she would try to commit suicide by burning charcoal briquettes in a tent with three other women; exactly one week after that attempt failed, she “succeeded”.
“All she talked about that evening was how she planned to commit suicide,” he said. “She talked about buying the tent, getting the stoves and how much charcoal she thought she would need. She also talked about doing it in a car.
“She looked excited, happy that she was soon going to die,” he said. “She knew that I wouldn’t stop her plan because it was just what she wanted to do. It was her message that she was leaving.”
And Shibui sympathises with Maria’s decision.
She told him she had been abused by her father as a child and that her husband had frequently assaulted her. At one point she told Shibui that she wanted a divorce, but eventually opted for a more radical way out of the relationship.
“She was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse when she was a child and the domestic violence and she just had difficulty living”
Tetsuya Shibui, describing her friend Maria, who killed herself
“She was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse when she was a child and the domestic violence and she just had difficulty living,” he said.
“Whenever we met she would only talk about herself, never her husband or her children. I don’t even know their names.”
Police do know, however, that she met the six other people on one of the dozens of chat sites that have sprung up catering to anyone contemplating suicide.
“After receiving so many replies to my search on the internet for someone to join me, I have decided to kill myself by a riverside,” she confided in a friend before her first attempt.
Two days later, in a suicide site chatroom, she wrote: “I want to commit suicide with a group of people, male or female. I failed once before, but I think I know how to do it now.”
That trawl of the darker side of the net introduced her to a 33-year-old housewife, one unemployed woman aged 20, two unemployed men, 20 and 26, a 20-year-old male university student and another 20-year-old man with a part-time job.
They were identified by personal belongings left inside the car, along with several suicide notes.
The names of the seven have not been released to the public, although the messages they wrote indicated concern at being unable to find jobs or failing university exams.
“Spring is the peak time for suicides in Japan, but I fear that this incident may well lead to a cluster of similar deaths,” said Yukio Saito, director of the Inochi No Denwa suicide hotline.
The website run by Penguin lets suicidal people post messages
Spring is the start of both the academic and fiscal year in Japan.
“They are trying to identify with people who have killed themselves previously and I am sure that we will see more deaths now,” he added.
“This is scary because it is the first time I have heard of so many people killing themselves together,” says a man who runs a suicide website and uses the pseudonym Penguin.
Red characters reading “Do you want to commit suicide?” scroll across the black background; links are to chatrooms for like-minded people, other sections debate the best place or method of killing oneself.
“It’s very popular; I set it up about eight years ago and now there are about 8500 people who are regular visitors,” he says. “And the numbers have risen a great deal since the incident in Saitama last week.”
Penguin is a 36-year-old estate agent who lives in northern Tokyo. He has a wife and a son aged 10. And he says he is very close to killing himself.
“I set the site up because I was continuously thinking about suicide. I still do, although operating the site helps to distract me,” he says.
“Now is a very difficult time for people in Japan and I’ve got money problems, work problems and worries at home.
“About three people whom I get to know through the site commit suicide each year.”
A record 34,427 people killed themselves in Japan last year, according to the National Police Agency.
A record 34,427 people killed themselves in Japan last year
Most were middle-aged or older men with financial worries who took an overdose or hanged themselves, but the internet is the preferred meeting place for the young.
Digital communications and death were first brought together in Japan in 1998, when a 24-year-old woman killed herself with cyanide bought over the internet from a former employee of a pharmaceuticals company.
Last year, the people involved in 15 group suicides were confirmed to have met in dedicated suicide chatrooms.
And the authorities say they are helpless to shackle it.
“We have no legal right to stop access to sites on the internet,” says Satoshi Minoura, a spokesman for the ministry of justice.
“We may make an appeal to the operators of these pages to stop on the grounds of human rights, but we cannot enforce that because they are not committing a crime.”
Penguin believes they are necessary.
“People need sites like these,” he says. “There’s no support in this society for me any more. If I wanted to stop smoking, there are all sorts of counselling groups that I could turn to, but there is nothing for people who want to die.”