Great Japanese crimes
I did not research any of this. Everything that follows is just my recollection of events that I read in the newspapers.
Recruit Scandal - 1988/89
I arrived in Japan in the midst of what is called the “Recruit Scandal.” It dominated the Japanese media in the late-1980s-early-1990s. There was a real estate company-affiliated employment agency, Recruit Cosmos, headed by a pompous twit named Hiromasa Ezoe, puffed up with the affluence of the bubble economy before it burst. (Large Japanese companies are typically affiliated with others - either businesses in the same line of work, or with other large companies in other sectors of the economy, and they habitually pay out handsomely to political campaigns with the expectation of return favors from successful candidates. The corporations form umbrella groups, like the Mitsubishi Group, the Toyoda Group, etc.) In 1988 Mr. Ezoe was arrested and charged with exactly this kind of influence pedaling and political bribery - technically illegal but more importantly than that a social faux pas. Faux pas don’t go over well in a culture that prizes appearance above reality, and pursues group accountability. The tentacles of the financial shenanigans were so far reaching that they cost then Prime Minister Noburo Takeshita his job in June 1989, just after my arrival. Mr. Ezoe was convicted, but not until 1993, and then it was a suspended prison sentence. In the end the case looked more like a slap on the wrist for immoral behavior than for illegal behavior. Which highlights the principle that appearing to do wrong, and getting caught doing it (thereby bringing shame upon one’s group) is worse than actually doing wrong in the first place. Maybe it’s true in Canada, as well, but I would argue not.
Incidentally, the Recruit Scandal parallels the Lockheed bribery scandal that cost former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka his job in 1974. (Noburo Takeshita was the inheritor of Tanaka’s powerful political faction.) The prime minister was convicted of accepting bribes from the Lockheed company in order to secure contracts to supply Japanese carriers. He fought his conviction right up to his death in 1993, and never spent a moment in jail.
Tsutomu Miyazaki - 1989
At almost the same time came the case of the“Otaku Murderer” Tsutomu Miyazaki (hanged in 2008). In 1988-89 he abducted, raped, murdered and mutilated several young girls, and he brought significant attention to the “otaku” nerd/geek phenomenon. These days many people talk about anime otaku, or fans, but Miyazaki was a comic book and pedophile sex video geek. (Japan is the largest producer in the world of child pornography.)
Aum Shinrikyo - 1995
The next big crime was in 1995. More a crime wave, actually, it is the single greatest criminal escapade in Japanduring my life here. It was the infamous sarin poison gas attack on the Tokyosubways by the Aum Shinrikyo (“Aum Supreme Truth”) religious cult, headed by Chizuo Matsumoto, a.k.a. Shoko Asahara. Aum Shinrikyo was a typically perverse Japanese hodge-podge of religious ideas. Asahara, who is blind, randomly slapped together unrelated and incongruous Buddhist, Jewish and Christian ideas and sold it to (educated) people hungry for mysticism more than spiritualism. Much was made of the fact that so many of the sect’s followers were well educated people from major universities - often the same people whose expertise was used to manufacture poison gas as well as firearms at the sect’s religious“facilities.”
Aum Shinrikyo failed to imitate the political success of the Buddhist sect political party Souka Gakai. It’s failure to get any of its candidates elected to the national legislature in the 1993 elections motivated the cult to begin planning an Apocalypse in Japan. The idea seems to have been to kill people in order to save them, and the failed election campaign set them off like a hive of bees being teased by schoolboys. (I often compare it to the Nazi defeat at Stalingradmotivating defeat-fearing Nazis to push the Final Solution into high gear.) They first tried their home-brewed gas by releasing it in the town of Matsumotoin August 1994. The police botched the investigation and wasted months trying to pin it on an innocent resident, Yoshiyuki Kono. Only in the new year, after the March 1995 subway incident in Tokyo, did they realize that the cult was also responsible for the Matsumoto incident, plus the murder of a Yokohamalawyer and his family who was investigating the group. The depth of police incompetence was very discouraging.
The Aum Shinrikyo incident is ample evidence that far from needing to worry about a foreign terrorist bogeyman like conservatives are wont to do, there is plenty of domestic terrorism to worry about instead. The cult still exists, although it is headed by a new guru, and its name is changed to the Hebrew letter א , “Aleph.”
Jun Hase - 1997
1997 saw the second worst criminal incident in Japanin the last twenty years. In 1997 a 14-year-old underage boy, called “Boy A” by the media but later nicknamed “Sakakibara Seito” - murdered two children in Kobe - a 10-year-old girl with a hammer in a public park in broad daylight in March, and a 10-year-old mentally handicapped boy named Jun Hase in May. The horror is that the killer decapitated Hase and left his head at the gate of a school. Whose school it was I’m not sure - it might have been Hase’s own school. It was discovered by a janitor. A controversy developed over the identity of the suspect. Originally, when a suspect was arrested, local newspapers did publish his picture and his name. But the Justice Ministry quickly clamped down on that publicity, citing a juvenile’s right to privacy. I’m sure libraries and archives have been ‘cleansed.’ Today very few remember the name and those who do aren’t talking. Instead, “Boy A,” or his nickname are used. The case not only called into question the practice of anonymity for under-age suspects, but it sparked a reconsideration of the minimum age for criminal prosecution as well - the threshold for distinguishing between degrees of punishment for heinous crime by suspects in the grey zone of maturity.
He was convicted and sentenced to several years in a Tokyoreformatory, ‘juvenile training facility.’ I remember reading reports in the paper that he was given a graduation certificate from his junior high school in Kobe, even though he was not in attendance there. (That’s how it is in Japan’s conveyor belt school system. No one is left behind. Even deceased students are commonly issued posthumous graduation certificates.) And I remem ber again when he was released.
Initially the suspect sent taunting letters to the Kobepolice, leading them and the media to think they were searching for a much older suspect. I remember extensive commentary on the letters’ writing style, the use of kanji and vocabulary that was deemed to indicate an adult. When a juvenile suspect was arrested it burned in the breasts of those who bemoan the disintegration of traditional Japanese values in a world gone crazy. The woe-mongering and breast beating in the press was quite boring.
It is difficult to properly convey the horror of the Jun Hase killing here. For Canadians it is comparable to the serial rapists/murderers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka (apprehended in 1993 and sentenced in 1995). Bernardo and Homolka are like the poster children of depravity and dysfunction. (Homolka has been paroled while Bernardo remains incarcerated until at least 2020.) For Britons it is comparable to the psychopathically depraved murder of 2-year-old James Bulger by 10-year-olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson in Liverpool, England four years earlier, in 1993. When Venables and Thompson were released from juvenile custody in England with assumed names for their own safety it contributed to the same kind of debate about the public’s right to know suspects’ identities for its own protection - irrespective of the convicts’ ages - that the secret identity of Boy A stoked in Japan. (Thompson and Venables remain on lifetime parole. Thompson currently lives in Liverpoolwith a male lover, and Venables has returned to prison for drug violation of his probation conditions. Knowledge of the whereabouts and doings of Boy A are tightly controlled.)
For Americans too young to remember the St. Valentine’s Day massacre - which is all of them - or Charles Manson - many of them - the next closest comparable crime might be the salacious tale of Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher (1992). But their escapades don’t really come anywhere close to Venables and Thompson, Homolka and Bernardo, or the Jun Hase killer.
Mayumi Hayashi - 1998
Next came the case of Mayumi Hayashi (born 1961 and currently on death row). She was charged and convicted of killing people at a summer festival in the town ofWakayama, Wakayama Prefecture in 1998 with arsenic-laced curry rice - a popular dish here. She was also convicted of attempting to murder her disabled husband - a former insect exterminator who kept cans of arsenic from his working days in his garage - by similar means. Both Mayumi and her husband denied it, and the husband has stood by her all these years. The presence of arsenic at the Hayashi home always looked incriminating, but the link to the arsenic used in the poisoned curry was never clearly proven. The remarkable thing for me is the frightening knowledge that a person here can be sentenced to death purely on circumstantial evidence. The case against Hayashi rested heavily on the fact that she was not popular with her neighbors. She was one of a group of women cooking the food in a tent and she was left alone for a short time with it, giving her what prosecutors painted as an opportunity to exact revenge on local residents for various slights - the motive. I think one person, a high school girl, died and a handful of others were sickened.
Lucie Blackman and Lindsay Hawker Murders, 2000 and 2007
Because Japanese live with strict gun control laws, and because theirs is a culture with a long, deep history of blades, they often resort of knives and household poisons to commit murder, rather than the quick and sure Way of the Gun like what trigger-happy Americans are disposed to.
Lucie Blackman (died 2000) and Lindsay Hawker (died 2007) were both 22-year-old British women murdered in Japan. I think they are both evidence of the particularly sloppy, unprofessional and almost childishly cruel way Japanese have of committing murder. Because Japanese livewith strict gun control laws, and because theirs is a culture with a long, deep history of blades, they often resort of knives and household poisons to commit murder, rather than the quick and sure Way of the Gun like what trigger-happy Americans are disposed to. And for some reasons I cannot fathom there seems to be a cultural disposition here towards post-mortem mutilation to dispose of the evidence.
In both cases the women’s families had to push the Japanese police like maniacs just to get them to do their job properly. Even the British government got involved in order to keep pressure on the Japanese to keep their investigations going. (Investigation and transparency are not a forté of Japanese police.)
Blackman was a one-time British Airways flight attendant-turned-hostess in Tokyo’s Roppongi district - a very lucrative job for attractive young women, more so for blond foreign women than young Japanese. A hostess is a borderline sex worker, but it is impolitic to say so. Initially the police neglected to take her missing person case seriously on the excuse that she was working illegally in a profession with a high turnover rate. Unwisely, Blackman dated one of her club’s customers, one Joji Obara. It took the police ages to bring Obara to court, but eventually his depraved character and lifestyle unraveled in the public eye. A failed businessman, he was a collector of pornographic movies and a serial date-rapist with a fetish for foreign women and a history of stalking/pursuing tall, blond Caucasians. He especially liked to drug their tea, then rape them when they were unconscious and videotape it all. It is believed that he killed Blackman this way unintentionally, then cut up her body and buried it in the sand of a seaside cave near one of his condominiums south of Tokyo. But he was not convicted of her murder. Of that he was acquitted because there was no incriminating videotape of her, and her decomposed body was discovered so late that cause of death could not be determined. Even so, Obara acknowledged that she died in his company, but that it was not his fault but rather the result of self-administered drugs. Reading his defense in the papers was like reading a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. He was jailed for life for raping six other women plus one other manslaughter.
The case of Lindsay Hawker is another outstanding example of Japanese police incompetence which just by coincidence also involved a woman of the same nationality and age as Lucie Blackman. It was not a good decade for British women in Japan.
Hawker was an English teacher working in the Tokyosuburb of Funabashifor the now bankrupt NOVA English school chain. (I used to live in Funabashi, too.) She took a private lesson in a coffee shop with 28-year-old Tatsuya Ichihashi. After the lesson, for reasons unknown, she accompanied him back to his apartment and never left. After missing two days of work her school reported her missing. Stung by copious international criticism of their slow response to the Lucie Blackman disappearance in 2000 the police were quicker to investigate. Ichihashi was known to Hawker’s two female roommates because he followed her home one day, and it was on their evidence that the police were led to Ichihashi’s apartment. Nine policemen assembled outside his apartment one night in late March 2007 when the weather was still cold and confronted him when he exited with a bag of laundry. For some reason he was barefoot, but he still managed to outrun nine police officers in the dark. He remained on the loose until November 2009 when he was identified and detained when trying to board a ferry for the southern island of Okinawa. During his two-year flight he held down jobs and even had plastic surgery more than once to alter his appearance. None of which makes the Japanese police look too good.
Inside Ichihashi’s apartment Hawker’s partially dismembered body was found buried in a bathtub full of sand and garden soil on the balcony. She showed signs of prolonged violence and her belongings were strewn about the residence.
Mamoru Takuma - 2001
Mamoru Takuma (1964-hanged in 2004) entered an Osakakindergarten in June 2001 and stabbed eight children to death. Takuma had a death wish and refused all appeals of his sentence, resulting in a very expeditious execution by Japanese standards. Takuma’s crime motivated a nation-wide increase in school security and child safety features: locked doors; photo ID; direct emergency lines to local police stations. The incident is comparable to the murder of 15 students and one teacher in Dunblane, Scotlandin March 1996 by Thomas Hamilton (who then killed himself).
Amagasaki Train Crash - 2005
On April 25, 2005 a speeding morning commuter train belonging to the JR West Fukuchiyama Line jumped the tracks on a curve and plowed into the underground parking lot of an adjacent condominium in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. The front cars of the train folded like an accordion killing 107 people (including the 23-year-old driver) and injured 555 others. It took rescuers days to extract all the pink goo. It was the worst train accident in Japansince a crash in Yokohamain 1963 that killed 163, and it was the worst accident of any kind in Japan since more than 500-people died in a Japan Airlines crash in Gumma Prefecturein the summer of 1985 (still counted as the worst air accident ever). But those events were before my time here. Of course it was an accident not a crime, although the driver was far above the prescribed speed limit for that section of track. But it was such a major event in the country that I wanted to include it in this list of crime both as a record of a major shock to the public psyche, and as a commentary about how everyday illegal activity is casually disregarded. Speeding the train is illegal, just like speeding a car. And so are driving through red traffic lights, which I witness several times every day, and riding bicycles on the sidewalk, which is the norm.
Japanese are famous for their promptness. And it’s true - they are prompt. Ask any foreigner here and you will be inundated with praising tales of transportation punctuality - not to mention the polite service. But the Amasaki train crash shows off the price of obsessive punctuality. Drivers admit that they feel pressured to maintain the schedule, even if it means driving illegally fast on stretches of track. Since then, there has been a noticeable decrease in speed in trains all over Japan. Companies decided to put caution before punctuality, and the Transportation Ministry ordered all train companies to update their automatic stopping systems to ensure that trains slow properly when approaching stations, curves, and other features. But still, Japanese remain really punctual. These days I rarely choose the front car of a train or subway. I want to keep all the pink goo inside me.
Livedoor - 2006
Finally is the case of Livedoor Japan. It’s a very confusing, Byzantine tale and it took me a long time to understand what the Livedoor company, headed by young entrepreneur Takafumi Horie, actually did. In the press it was always called an “internet company.” What does that mean? It doesn’t tell me what the company actually did, like the dotcom companies in America in the 1990s. What did they do or produce? Nothing, it turned out, which is why the dotcoms went so spectacularly bust. It turns out that people were just mesmerized with the idea of making unlimited money for nothing on the Internet, like a bottomless pot of gold.
Well, as it happens, Livedoor was an Internet provider, like AOL, or Gmail, hotmail, or Yahoo, etc. But like other large corporations here it branched out into a web of subsidiary businesses so tangled that its original mission got lost in the clutter. Horie was so drunk on the idea of being a businessman that he didn’t stop long enough to actually conduct a business.
Livedoor grew really big really fast using financial tricks - like acquisitions and “stock swaps” - and changed its name so often along the way that comprehending it is like solving a mildly difficult jigsaw puzzle. In 1997 it became a publicly traded company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE). But in 2006 it all fell apart remarkably fast after allegations of share price manipulation and securities fraud prompted panic selling of its stock. Basically, the company deliberately misrepresented its value by cooking its books to over-state its true worth. It sold inflated stock to raise money. Why? Overly hasty expansion created too much debt and a cash flow dilemma - a common problem in Japan. It was de-listed by the TSE in January 2006 and sued for billions of yen (hundreds of millions of dollars) in compensation by defrauded investors - a big one being the Fuji Television Corporation that Livedoor had earlier tried to buy. Mr. Horie received a 2½-year prison sentence yet to be served.
Incidentally, in 2005 parliamentary elections Horie was courted by the ruing Liberal Democratic Party as a possible candidate. He did not pursue the opportunity, but stumping LDP candidates were really chummy with him, referencing him as the epitome of the New Japan’s cosmopolitan youth and international entrepreneurial spirit. After the financial scandal broke he was promptly disowned by his former fawning fans in the LDP who emphatically denied any infatuation. Yeah, right.