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Social isolation blamed for Japan incidents of 'extended suicide'

Suspect in deadly arson in Osaka clinic dies without revealing motive

Firefighters at the site of a fire in a psychiatric clinic that killed 25 people, Dec. 17, 2021. (Photo by Arisa Moriyama)

OSAKA -- A 61-year-old man suspected by police of setting the fire that killed 25 people at a psychiatric clinic in Osaka in December has died in hospital.

The Osaka Prefectural Police Department believes Morio Tanimoto was well prepared for the arson attack and his suicide, in which many others were caught up. Such an event has been called "extended suicide" and this one has things in common with previous acts of murder.

With experts pointing out that social isolation and loneliness are behind incidents of extended suicide, efforts are increasing in Japan and elsewhere to prevent people from falling into a state of mind where they feel cut off from society.

The fire started on the fourth floor of a downtown multi-tenant building at about 10:20 a.m. on Dec. 17. Security camera footage shows that Tanimoto set the fire, then moved toward the blaze, bringing patients and others to the back part of the clinic.

A note containing words such as "arson" and "murder" was found at Tanimoto's home, suggesting that he had prepared the crime for several months. Police investigators have not found difficulties between Tanimoto and the clinic, so have been unable to confirm whether he had any specific target from his act. However, "he evidently intended to involve lots of people in his suicide," a senior investigator said.

Tanimoto's deed can be interpreted as a "typical case of extended suicide," said Tamami Katada, a psychiatrist who has written a book on self-destruction of this kind. "Suicidal wishes had possibly persisted in his mind for a considerable period of time."

Extended suicide is a concept in psychiatric medicine that means murder-suicide. It reportedly began to increase after eight pupils at Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka, attached to the state-run Osaka Kyoiku University, were stabbed to death in 2001 by a middle-aged man who was later sentenced to death and executed.

Experts point out that extended suicide has been on the rise, partly because an increasing amount of people are unable to see a future for themselves and become obsessed with suicidal wishes.

There are two types of people who wish to kill themselves, according to experts. While people who commit suicide alone tend to blame themselves for their problems, those who commit extended suicide have an extra-punitive mentality.

Investigators noted that there were signs of Tanimoto's deepened social isolation. He lost his mother when he was young, got divorced from his wife and quit his job at a sheet metal plant.

Katada believes that Tanimoto's social isolation and alienation led him to commit the arson. "Amid deepening isolation, he probably blamed other people and society for his fallen life more strongly than before and committed the indiscriminate mass killing," she said.

Investigators inspect the scene of a fire in Osaka on Dec. 17, 2021. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

Extra-punitive trends have been observed in past cases in which people have been indiscriminately killed or injured. During his trial, the perpetrator of the Ikeda school massacre repeatedly said, "Everyone in society is my enemy" and "I wanted to make kids, raised in privileged families, understand the absurdity of being killed by an odd old man."

A suspect arrested in a knife and arson attack that injured 17 people on a Keio Line train in Tokyo in October last year was reported telling police that "I thought I could be executed if I killed two or so people" and that "I wanted to die as I have quit work and my relationships with friends have weakened."

Past studies throw light on the pattern of such indiscriminate killings, with socially isolated people having become unhappy with their circumstances and going on to commit murder-suicide.

According to a study released by the Justice Ministry in 2013 on people found guilty of indiscriminately killing or injuring others, 27 of the 52 convicts had attempted suicide before or after committing their crimes. More than 40%, or 22 of the 52, said they had committed the crimes out of "discontent about their circumstances." Among other findings, 28 had no friends at the time of their crimes.

The 52 offenders "possibly include those who could not fully adapt to society and workplaces and develop new friendships," the ministry said in a summary report on the study.

The death of Tanimoto has eliminated any opportunity to find out his motive for the arson in Osaka and to press charges of criminal responsibility against him.

Assuming that Tanimoto had feelings of isolation, loneliness and despair, however, an important question is whether there were any chances of easing these beforehand. Based on lessons from the case, considering countermeasures will be a crucial issue for the whole of society. Among measures that must be taken are the creation of places that provide lonely people with a sense of belonging and opportunities to meet other people, including services that can keep a watch over them and where they can always access consultation and support.

The U.K., meanwhile, made moves ahead of other countries to try to deal with the question of isolation and loneliness. Under the world's first minister for loneliness appointed in 2018, Britain has established a system in cooperation with local governments and volunteers to support the jobless and other people who tend to feel cut off from society. Specific measures include the creation of opportunities for participation in physical exercise programs and local activities, and the launch of consultation services.

Japan appointed its first minister for loneliness in February 2021 and adopted a plan in December for priority measures to help lonely and isolated people. Noting that isolation and loneliness "can occur to anybody at all stages of life," the plan includes the establishment of around-the-clock consultation services for such vulnerable people and the reinforcement of support for nonprofit organizations helping them.

The Japanese government has begun stepping up measures to address the question of social isolation and loneliness because of concern about an increase in suicide victims. In 2020, 21,081 people committed suicide in Japan, marking the first increase since 2009 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The increase is seen to be partly attributable to the coronavirus pandemic making more people feel lonely amid fewer opportunities to meet others and a growth of social and economic isolation. The effectiveness of countermeasures will be closely watched.

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