It all began on February 11, 1933 when a 21-year old student named Kiyoko Matsumoto committed suicide by throwing herself into the volcanic crater of Mount Mihara on the Japanese island of Izu Oshima. Matsumoto, a student at Tokyo's Jissan College, developed an infatuation with fellow student Masako Tomita. In a poignant letter, she wrote "Dearest, I am bewildered to distraction by the perplexities of maturing womanhood. I can stand the strain no longer. What shall I do? I should like to jump into a volcano." As it happened, Tomita knew just the ideal spot for such a romantic gesture. Since lesbian relationships were considered taboo in Japanese culture at the time, both she and Tomita decided to travel together to the volcano so that Matsumoto could end her life there.
Mount Mihara was already a well-known suicide site since an observation post near the top of the volcanic cone allowed visitors to look straight down into the crater. Even as early as the 1920s, people could commit suicide by jumping into the volcano. Incidents such as this were relatively rare though since there were more practical alternatives including jumping off one of Tokyo's skyscrapers. Unfortunately for Matsumoto, business owners had recently put a stop to high-rise suicides by placing security barriers at the top of those buildings where suicides had taken place. Though determined jumpers could still find accessible buildings, Masako Tomito telling all her friends at school about Matsumoto's death would establish Mount Mihara as a new suicide venue.
Along with the poignant goodbye note she left behind, the story of a young woman ending her life by jumping into a volcano would eventually inspire a series of copycat suicides. Kiyoko Matsumoto's suicide became a media sensation across Japan as news agencies picked up the story and made her a celebrity. Her goodbye note was reprinted in the newspapers and Mount Mihara suddenly attracted a new wave of tourists and curiosity seekers. Masako Tomita became a celebrity as well and, according to a Times news article from 1935, died not long afterward though the cause of death was not given.
To profit from the volcano's new popularity, Jinnojo Hayashi, president of Tokyo Bay Steamship Company set up a daily steamship line to the island where it was located and the observation post near the top of the mountain picked up the new name: "Suicide Point". Visitors wishing to visit the volcano could ride donkeys and horses up the steep mountain so they could look into the lava for themselves. The poor fishing community at the foot of the volcano prospered with the new tourist trade. Though authorities were already becoming alarmed by the prospect of copycat deaths, they did little to discourage it at first (suicide was not illegal under Japanese law). In 1933 alone, 944 people (804 men, 140 women) would jump into the crater. The two years that followed saw an additional 350 suicides and 1386 attempted suicides on Mount Mihara and visitors would often travel there just to watch people jump.
Newspapers also played on Kiyoko Matsumoto's sexual orientation and "lesbian suicide" became a new cultural meme in Japan. Even before Matsumoto's death, suicide was hardly uncommon in women facing problems coming to terms with their sexuality, For lesbians in particular, living in a country with little tolerance for sexual minorities provided few options except for suffering in silence. The rise in suicides among women was alarming enough for Nobuko Jo of the Old Women's Home in Kobe, Japan to establish a national movement designed to prevent further deaths. She helped set up shelters which she called "Wait-a-bits" where people would could reconsider killing themselves. "The pause for reflection is vital," she said in one public statement, "Achieve that and the unfortunate woman generally saves herself. The thing is to ease their hysteria, if only for a few hours, and get them away from hysterical friends." Along with Wait-a-bits, she also established shelters for homeless women across Japan and credited her movement with preventing thousands of deaths.
There was also the romantic aspect of Matsumoto's death which caused Mount Mihara to became a popular spot for mutual suicide pacts (known as shinjuu in Japan). Until the outbreak of World War 2, as many as 45 couples would commit suicide each year by throwing themselves into the volcano. In one shinjuu case from 1956, 27-year old Fumisuke Onodera and 21-year old Chieko Numakura of Tokyo both decided on suicide after learning of Numakura's bone tuberculosis. Though they both jumped into the volcano, they actually landed on a ledge about ten meters (30 feet) above the lava. After reconsidering their suicide decision, Onodera tried to climb out with Numakura on his back though he could not manage to get her out alone. He eventually made it to the top by himself and arranged for her rescue. Though badly burned, they both survived.
The Mount Mihara suicide epidemic eventually ended through enhanced security to prevent suicides and making it a criminal offense to purchase a one-way ticket to the island. While suicide is likely still possible for someone sufficiently determined, there are usually more accessible places available. Even today, suicide in Japan remains a major social issue and the suicide rate is one of the highest in the world. Methods tend to vary (and certain places such as Japan's Aokigahara Forest remain popular) so authorities stay alert to the possibility of copycat suicides following high-profile deaths. In recent years, the suicides of musicians Yukiko Okada and hide triggered small copycat suicide clusters although nothing on the scale following Kiyoko Matsumoto's death.
Still, the rapid rise of suicides in Japan during the 1990s (1998 saw a 34.7% increase from the previous year) and the number of suicides linked to the recent economic downturn has led to a call for stronger action. A new government initiative has been put into place to reduce suicides 20% by 2017 with billions of yen being allocated for anti-suicide measures including greater access to counseling. Though early signs are encouraging, the popularity of internet suicide websites listing different ways of committing suicide using household chemicals demonstrates that the suicide epidemic is far from over.