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Apartment complex fights image as 'Mecca for Suicides'

By JOHN NEEDHAM

TOKYO -- They jumped from the roofs of 14-story buildings to their deaths on the pavement below, so the apartment complex locked the doors to the roofs.

Others committed suicide by jumping from open passageways and corridor windows, so those were closed off.

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But Japanese bent on death still come to the 40,000-resident Takashimadaira complex, a group of 64 apartment buildings five- to 14-stories high within Tokyo's city limits.

They come from miles away, sometimes riding a train for hours. This year there has been a suicide once every 10 days through September, earning the complex the unwanted nickname of 'Mecca for Suicides.'

No one is sure why the Takashimadaira apartments became such a popular spot to spend one's last breathing moments, but those who live there aren't happy about it.

'I haven't heard of any people who moved out because of the many suicides, but I understand many people want to move,' said an official of Itabashi, one of the 23 wards that make up the city of Tokyo.

The official, who asked that his name not be used, is a member of the Takashimadaria Accident Prevention Countermeasures Council _ the anti-suicide squad formed two years ago by police, fire, ward and residents' association officials.

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'The housing corporation plans to build protective fences around the buildings,' the official said. The fences would stop suicides from falling on innocent passers-by, although that hasn't happened yet.

'To avoid the impression that people live in cages, the aluminum fences will be colorfully designed,' the man added.

The complex is the largest of its kind in Tokyo and is relatively cheap because it is public housing. The average monthly rent for an apartment of four miniscule rooms is $160, about half the price of private housing.

California's Golden Gate Bridge became a magnet for suicides presumably, some pscychologists think, because of its dramatic setting across the gateway to San Francisco Bay. There is no similar apparent lure at the Takashimadaira apartment buildings _ antiseptic, claustrophobic and depressing enough without the fences when it opened in April 1972. The first suicide came two months later.

Eight people committed suicide there in 1973, then two in each of the next two years. In 1977, 10 people leaped to their deaths, 13 the next year, 17 the following year and 23 by mid-October this year _ 76 so far.

The council posted signs around the buildings, asking residents to call police if they see strangers who appear unhappy or who peer upward. So far 20 persons bent on ending their lives there have been stopped by police.

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A pamphlet issued this month is titled, 'Let us rid Takashimadaira of the name 'Mecca for Suicide.''

It points out that only 17 percent of the suicides actually lived in the complex. Others came from up to 120 miles away.

Most suicides take place during the day and the council now plans patrols to keep an eye on despondent strangers. It also plans to put posters in the hallways, urging would-be suicides to please change their minds.

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