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Thursday, December 31, 1998 Published at 16:37 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Poisonous year for Japan

Depressing and poisonous character of 1998

By BBC Tokyo Correspondent Juliet Hindell

The Japanese people have once again chosen the Chinese character that best represents the year behind them. In the annual ceremony, televised throughout the country, the chief priest at the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto wrote the character with a large brush on a huge piece of paper.

The giant character read "poison".

That was the word that the Japanese people selected as the one that best represented 1998 as a whole. This year only 12,000 people took part, far fewer than in previous years, perhaps reflecting what a depressing process it had been.

The choice of the character for poison refers to an incident which shocked Japan in the summer. A village festival came to an abrupt and tragic end when four people died from eating a curry that was being served. Sixty-three others fell sick and were sent to hospital.

The curry had been laced with arsenic.

Insurance fraud suspected

It took the police three months to make an arrest. The woman who allegedly put the poison in the curry is believed to have taken insurance policies out on people at the festival in the hope that she could make a claim when they died.

Japan was horrified, but that feeling intensified when a rash of copycat incidents followed. One man died after drinking a can of tea which had been tainted with cyanide.

The downturn in the economy and a series of scandals at government ministries made some feel that Japan's entire society was poisoned.

The priest who wrote the character said he was depressed by the choice and hoped that in 1999 there would be something more cheerful to write.

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