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Web Suicide Sites Worry Japanese

January 8, 1999

TOKYO (AP) _ He called himself Dr. Kiriko after a dark-cloaked figure in Japanese comics, and welcomed his troubled supplicants with promises of fast relief.

But the 27-year-old science teacher was dispensing more than just friendly advice on the Internet. Nawaki Hashimoto was peddling cyanide pills to suicidal Japanese.

Police said this week that Hashimoto used his credentials as a pharmacist to buy potassium cyanide and had stocked up more than 500 grams _ enough to kill 3,000 people. Eight people ordered the capsules through his website. A Tokyo woman who swallowed a dose died Dec. 15, the same day Hashimoto was found dead from cyanide poisoning.

The Internet cyanide case has alarmed Japanese and sparked a debate over whether potentially harmful information in cyberspace, such as the proliferating sites on how to commit suicide, should be kept in check.

``One musn’t forget that there’s the danger of a `pitfall of death’ lurking in the information age,″ the mass-circulation Mainichi newspaper said in an editorial Friday.

Days after the cyanide poisonings, Japan’s top-selling newspaper, the Yomiuri, called for stricter supervision of harmful information on the Internet in a front-page editorial about suicide Web sites.

The government already is alarmed about the availability of child pornography in cyberspace, and the suicide case only fuels its concern about whether officials should get involved in closely monitoring the Internet. So far, discussions are preliminary and a strategy has not yet emerged.

A search for ``suicide″ on a typical Japanese Internet engine turns up more than 20,000 hits. Many sites offer counseling to help prevent desperate people from killing themselves, but scores of others offer guidance on how to end one’s life.

Many experts say the cyber-suicides have generated unfair criticism of the Internet in Japan.

``I believe it’s wrong to blame the Internet,″ said Atsushi Aiba, professor of sociology at Shizuoka University. ``The same crimes can be committed by telephone, and few people would dream of imposing stricter controls in that field.″

Hashimoto’s home page maintenance company closed down his Internet ``consultation room″ shortly after news of the cyanide deaths emerged, on the grounds that it encouraged people to harm themselves.

But days later, several mirror sites appeared, apparently posted by aficionados of Hashimoto’s service. Some reportedly carried messages thanking ``Dr. Kiriko″ and offering prayers for the repose of his soul.

Dr. Kiriko, Hashimoto’s cyber-name, referred to a practitioner of euthanasia in a popular comic strip. Hashimoto was a science teacher in Sapporo, on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido.

The unemployed woman who died from Hashimoto’s cyanide allegedly had the capsules ordered for her by another Tokyo woman whom she met during a hospital stay. Her helper had been hospitalized after attempting to kill herself with poison requested from the Dr. Kiriko Web site.

Another woman committed suicide after receiving poison from Hashimoto, but it was unclear if she had died from the pills he sent.

The eight people who ordered the poison deposited a total of $2,600 into Hashimoto’s bank account, and police have confirmed six were sent poison packs by mail. Hashimoto paid about $25 for the cyanide.

Some researchers in Japan have linked the Internet poisonings and the rise in suicide websites to a general malaise among the country’s younger generation.

``Younger people in Japan are finding it increasingly difficult to communicate in person, so they find comfort in the Internet,″ said Hiroyoshi Ishikawa, a sociology professor at Seijo University. ``The problem is intensified when the users are suicidal.″

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