In “Let’s Die Together,” which ran in The Atlantic in May 2007, strangers in Japan join online networks with the express purpose of meeting and killing themselves. David Samuels serves as our guide to an underworld “too familiar” to the police, where real investigation rarely follows because no one has committed a crime. Here are people who succumb to death’s lure and the social context that may sway their thinking.

Samuels opens with suspense: an underplayed death scene. After outlining Japan’s post-war history and its “suicide positive” culture, he inserts himself, using his subjects’ reactions to his presence and inquiries to shape the story. Moving backward through time from the dead to the catalysts of death—the online death groups and the how-to manual that has sold over two million copies—he ends with alienated but still-living young people in a nightclub discussing death. The narrative simultaneously travels a spiral from the unnamed dead in groups, to the masked online identities of individuals chatting about dying, to a face-to-face encounter with Toji, whose family discourages him from taking medication. He has tried before to die and seems committed to trying again.

“We are a nation of children,” says the celebrity creator of a pivotal animated series. And in the final paragraphs, as Samuels follows Toji home to his childhood bedroom, where he still sleeps, Samuels narrates a collision between culture and the self, making a foreign phenomenon comprehensible and tragic.

Read “Let’s Die Together,” by David Samuels

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