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Romance, danger lurk in e-mail personals

June 1, 2001 

Upon meeting her 28-year-old date, "Koneko" found him to be as cool as she had imagined from his countless e-mails.

"I don't meet people I cannot trust," the 27-year-old woman said, speaking on condition she be identified only by her online handle "Koneko," which means kitten.

When she logged onto the personal ad site, Koneko thought she would be able to tell the kind of person her prospective date would be by communicating online.

"See their personal ads and profiles on the site. Some say 'I am chubby,' though no one asks," she said, reckoning the messages inevitably reveal the writers' true character, even if not intended.

Exchanging up to 100 messages a day, Koneko has befriended 20 men on the Internet site. She said she corresponds regularly with the men and has so far met five in person and dated two of them.

But not all encounters arranged through personal ad sites are free from danger.

In April, an 18-year-old boy from Hokkaido was arrested for fatally stabbing a 28-year-old housewife in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture. The two reportedly got to know each other online through a personal ad site.

In May, a 25-year-old man was arrested in Kyoto for allegedly killing a 19-year-old college student he became acquainted with through a similar Web site.

For many Japanese parents, it is beyond their understanding why today's youth dare to meet total strangers whose real identities are hidden.

Most personal ad sites are free. Such a site typically provides an online bulletin board on which members can post messages and personal profiles.

The profiles are usually registered beforehand and accessible by all visitors, who can search for partners by gender, area, age and job. Those interested in specific members can send messages to personal mail boxes.

There is, however, no way to verify the information.

Koneko said she is well aware of the danger of meeting a stranger. But she said she has never been scared of meeting an e-mail pen pal.

People tend to be honest about themselves on these sites because they are seriously looking for dates, she said.

She also said the anonymity afforded to users of such sites is exactly what appeals to many young people.

"I give and seek advice on serious life matters with my e-mail pals, and they are very sincere," Koneko said. "I would not talk about these things with my friends; it's embarrassing. I can be very straight with these people because I have never met them."

Yasuyuki Kawaura, professor of social psychology at Yokohama City University, acknowledged this aspect of online communication, noting that people tend to be more forthcoming in front of computers than in face-to-face encounters.

"Studies have shown that pollees tend to answer more honestly via computers because they don't have to be conscious of others," said Kawaura, who studies human relationships via new communications media.

Despite mounting public concern about misdeeds committed by e-mail acquaintances, the popularity of online personal ad sites has been rising.

A recent survey found that roughly one in three people have visited an online personal ad site and that nearly one in five has a desire to do so.

The survey by Inc., an Internet market research firm, was conducted on 1,500 people. Of the group, 518 -- 351 men and 167 women -- responded.

Of those who had visited personal ad sites, 73 percent said they had found an e-mail pal, 24.7 percent had established a friendship with someone of the opposite sex, and 7.9 percent had found a date.

One Tokyo-based personals operator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his site has about 300,000 registered users and that the number is growing by roughly a thousand per day. Teenagers and those in their 20s make up the majority, with males accounting for 70 percent of the group, he said.

He said the site posts several thousand entries on its bulletin board per hour and gets more than 10 million page views a day.

Although no exact figures are available, it is estimated that there are some 2,000 online personal ad sites accessible from mobile phones, according to Akihiko Nasu, editor of the monthly magazine i-mode Style.

He said the online love boom started around last summer, when the number of subscribers to mobile messaging and Internet services topped 10 million.

"Traditionally, pornography helped the spread of new media, such as VTRs and computers," Nasu said. "Online love games are now the 'killer' content for today's young cellphone users."

Kawaura of Yokohama City University said the desire to be heard by others is fueling the popularity of online personal ad sites.

"On these sites, the messages are read by others, and people have the mental reward of being heard," he said.

Social factors unique to Japan also play a role, he said, noting that the trend has not caught on in Scandinavia despite the widespread use of cellphones in that region.

The strict social roles each Japanese is expected to play in public life has driven many to visit these sites because people can relate with other people without following these restrictions, he said.

Still, what is perplexing for many offline generations is why some e-mail Casanovas become obsessed to the point of murder.

They wonder if relationships established via computer shouldn't be drier than the face-to-face meetings that lead to a love affair.

The 18-year-old Hokkaido boy, arrested in April, reportedly told investigators that he moved to Ibaraki Prefecture after graduating from high school so he could be closer to his lover but that he killed her in a fit of rage when she gave him the cold shoulder.

Koneko acknowledged that online romances tend to move quickly into high gear, giving a couple little time to step back and reflect.

"People start sending messages such as 'I love you' and 'I want to kiss you' even before they meet," she said.

"There are couples who even swear marriage on the Net," she said.

Citing one such example, she said a divorced woman in her 30s in Hokkaido and a man in his 20s in Aichi Prefecture got acquainted through a personal ad site and promised to marry even before they had heard each other's voices.

The man went to Hokkaido to fetch her and they married in Aichi.

"Everybody said they were crazy, but the two were driven to passion and nobody could stop them," she said.

Generally speaking, Koneko said, men are more enthusiastic and romantically driven to find a mate on a personal ad site, and some even seem desperate to hold on to their find.

Because men outnumber women, Koneko said, "Once a woman places an ad on an online bulletin board, she will get 50 messages from male users.

"I think the people who end up killing an e-mail pal are driven by anger and a sense of betrayal when they find out the other person was not as serious as they were."

By TAIGA URANAKA, Copyright © 2001 The Japan Times

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