The story reads like a New Zealand news editor’s wish list: A Kiwi banged up in an exotic Asian locale with harsh laws and a secretive justice system. Celebrity, dangerous weapons, bizarre behavior, death threats, Brazilian street gangs and a mysterious love interest. The backdrop: a polite, upmarket department store in suburbia. And last, but certainly not least, a key role for that most quintessential of New Zealand pursuits: rugby.
Whip all of these ingredients together and you are guaranteed to have the nation’s attention — and so it was with the recent arrest in Japan of former All Black Jerry Collins.
“Jerry Collins — a true New Zealand story,” said Hamish Alexander, 51, speaking from New Zealand’s second city, Christchurch, summing up better than most why the story caught the country’s imagination and what it said about the Kiwi psyche: “It has got rugby, it has got violence, it has got brown skin, and it’s got a New Zealander living away from home. It has all the ingredients of a classic N.Z. thriller.”
“New Zealand rugby is religion,” he added. “We don’t like to see our saints cut down.”
In his heyday, Jerry Collins was a force to be reckoned with on the rugby field. At 1.91 meters and 108 kg, the Samoan-born flanker and No. 8 struck fear into his opponents.
Fans knew him as “The Terminator” or “Hitman” and he was loved by rugby fans the world over for his bone-crunching tackles and rampaging charges up the field.
Having played 48 internationals for New Zealand from 2001 to 2008, with three as captain, Collins is regarded by many as one of the great All Blacks.
In stark contrast to his hard-man image, off-field he was known as an easy-going, down-to-earth, soft-spoken kind of guy. His humble and generous character only added to his huge popularity. Even during his professional prime he was known to occasionally turn up unexpectedly and play matches for low-level amateur teams.
This kindly image of Collins, 32, also carried though to his more recent career in Japan, where he played for company team Yamaha Jubilo.
“He was a great player and was very good with relating to the public,” said Yamaha Rugby spokesman Jin Hasegawa. “He was very polite and kind to the Japanese supporters and would sign his signature for them and shake their hand. He was a former All Black, so very popular.”
So, when the story broke on March 17 that this much-loved rugby legend had been arrested after pulling out two knives in the basement of a department store in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, the news wires in New Zealand went crazy and shock reverberated across the rugby-mad islands.
As more details about the incident slowly emerged, things made less rather than more sense. Descriptions by staff from the Entetsu store where the incident occurred painted a picture of an “unstable” Collins behaving in an inexplicably bizarre manner.
Security guard Naoki Tani rushed to the basement food floor just before 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 16, after receiving a call from the girls working at the seafood counter.
“There was a large man standing behind the counter,” recalled Tani. “When I reached out my arm towards him he suddenly pulled a knife from his right pocket and placed in on the box behind the counter. It was a survival-style knife and had a long curved blade. It was very big, with a serrated end.
“Then he reached into his other pocket and pulled out a smaller kitchen knife and put that down on the box as well.”
Tani said he then quickly took the knives, hid them under the counter and called the police.
Collins was neither violent nor aggressive, said the guard, but he was acting very strangely, pacing backwards and forwards behind the counter, rummaging around and saying random words in Japanese that made no sense.
“He kept saying the word shinkansen (bullet train) and abunai (danger),” Tani explained. “He was moving his head from side to side in a repetitive way and also sweating very heavily. He was wearing a light blue shirt and the top half of it was soaked through.”
One of the staff then brought him a glass of water as he look unwell, which he quickly downed, Tani said.
“Then he said in Japanese, ‘One more water, please.’ It was the only thing he said in Japanese that made any sense.”
Division Manager Katsuyuki Aono corroborates Tani’s account.
“We really couldn’t understand what he was doing — he was just behaving in a strange and abnormal way,” Aono said. “Saturday early evening is a busy time for our store and there were a lot of customers.”
Concerned about the safety of customers, Aono, another manager and two security guards cordoned off the area and waited for police to arrive.
According to Aono, when the first officer arrived and saw how big Collins was, he immediately called for backup. Police began to pour into the basement floor food department and soon there were dozens of officers surrounding the former All Black.
“The Japanese police were very small in comparison to him and they must have been worried,” Aono said. “But the police did not have to physically restrain Collins and he was not handcuffed. They just walked him out of the shop normally, but there were 30 police surrounding him so it created a big scene.”
At the time, Aono had no idea who Collins was. “We just saw he was a foreigner and was very, very big. We were very surprised to hear that this man was a famous All Black from New Zealand,” he said.
When reports of Collins’ odd behavior reached New Zealand, rumors began to circulate that he was on drugs or had had some kind of nervous breakdown. At first, little information surfaced to prove or disprove these rumors and the Japanese police — in typical fashion and to the frustration of the N.Z. media — gave out only the most cursory of details about the case.
The language barrier added to the confusion. Collins’ club, Yamaha, which was talking to the media, claimed they didn’t even know if Collins was still in the country, let alone what he was doing pulling out knives in a department store.
One of New Zealand’s rugby heroes had fallen into the black hole of Japanese justice, and no one knew when he was going to get out.
The media back in New Zealand were left to grasp at straws, and resorted to rolling out former All Blacks with Japan experience, like former Japan coach John Kirwan, and Collins’ friends and family back home, all of whom seemed to know less about what he was up to than the media did.
Next up was Peter Bethune, the former Sea Shepherd activist who spent around five months in detention after boarding the Shonan Maru 2 whaling vessel on the high seas, talking about the horrors of spending time in a Japanese jail.
Unlike Collins, who was only held in police detention, Bethune was indicted on five charges and spent time in the Tokyo Detention Center before and during his trial. Although convicted on four of the charges, Bethune received a suspended sentence and was deported to New Zealand after the verdict.
Finally, TV3 presenter John Campbell, a celebrity journalist in New Zealand, traveled with a film crew to Hamamatsu and got the big scoop, somehow managing to wangle an off-camera interview with Collins while he was in detention.
According to the TV3 report, Collins told Campbell he had received death threats from a Brazilian gang, and that’s why he had armed himself with knives.
“A misunderstanding with a gang had escalated suddenly and very dramatically to the point where he feared for his life and threats against his life were made,” reported Campbell from outside Hamamatsu police station. Collins had told him that he was being stalked by gang members prior to the incident and had gone into the Entetsu store to hide from them, believing he would be safe around large numbers of people. He was reported to have said that he was relieved when he was arrested and taken to the safety of the police station.
Hamamatsu, a city of 800,000 that’s home to big-name manufacturers including Yamaha and Suzuki, boasts the largest community of Brazilians in Japan, estimated at over 18,000.
When asked why a Brazilian gang was after him, Collins explained it away as being due to long-running animosity between the gangsters and foreign rugby players. Yet, especially for those close to Japan, this story about gangs of crazed, violent Brazilians running amok in suburban Japan hunting down professional athletes sounded far-fetched, to say the least.
Then, suddenly, after spending 11 nights in jail, the authorities released Collins on Wednesday without charge after he agreed to pay a fine of ¥150,000. Collins’ agent and lawyer, Tim Castle, who had arrived in Japan a few days earlier, helped secure the release after holding a number of meetings with the Japanese authorities alongside officials from the New Zealand Embassy.
Castle also brought with him letters from Collins’ supporters back home, including the New Zealand Rugby Union, family, friends, and church and community leaders. Even the mayor of Collins’ home town of Porirua provided a character reference.
Castle was reported as saying his early release and the relatively small size of the fine showed the authorities recognized Collins possession of knives was “not accompanied by any sinister intent or intimidating purpose.” He added that the police had also thoroughly investigated the circumstances of the Brazilian gang that had threatened Collins, and that had also played a part in his early release. He said the threats had been going on for weeks and Collins had earlier contacted his rugby club to inform them he was worried about his security. These emails between Collins and Yamaha were presented to the police as evidence.
In addition, a neighbor of Collins had independently called the police after he became concerned about a group of suspicious-looking foreigners staking out Collins’ house.
According to Castle, Collins was also drug-tested by the police after his arrest and came up “completely clear.” His apartment was searched and no drugs were found.
Castle says Collins is “furious” about rumors he was using drugs and speculation that links to organized crime were behind his detention in Japan. This, finally, led Collins to reveal through his lawyer the last piece of the puzzle — that a relationship with a woman had led to him falling foul of a gang of Brazilians, leaving him fearing for his life.
“He has revealed that, in order that other suggestions — that there had been some association with organized crime or other illicit behavior — so that those sorts of ideas or speculation didn’t gain any currency,” Castle told reporters when he arrived back in New Zealand last week.
Castle didn’t address the question of why Collins decided to tool up with knives rather than report the gang’s threats to the police.
Collins whereabouts remains unknown, after he failed to return to New Zealand with his lawyer as many had expected. Castle says Collins is no longer in danger and wants to return to his “private life.”
“I wouldn’t call it hiding, but he’s safe,” he said. “This has been a huge ordeal for him and his family and he wants to get back to normality and the gym.'”
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Day of the long knives could have earned Jerry Collins jail time
Jerry Collins was exceedingly lucky to be released from police detention without charge after paying a small fine. Japan’s weapons laws are notoriously strict and he could have faced a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
Collins was held in police custody for violating the Swords and Firearms Control Law. A copy of his arrest certificate obtained by The Japan Times states that he was arrested for carrying a 17 cm hōchō (kitchen/carving knife) in public “without a valid reason, such as for work purposes.”
According to eyewitnesses, Collins was actually caught with two knives — a survival knife and a kitchen knife — and it is unclear why only one knife is mentioned on the arrest certificate.
It may be that police deemed the smaller knife to be within legal limits.
Japanese weapons law differentiates between hōchō (kitchen/carving knives), tsurugi (double-edged swords) and katana (single-edged swords).
An eyewitness described one of the weapons Collins was carrying as a survival knife, but there is some flexibility regarding how such weapons are classified under Japanese law. Such knives are often double-bladed but are not commonly considered swords.
It a matter of interpretation whether a weapon is defined as a sword or knife under Japanese law. Restrictions on double-edged swords are the strictest, and a weapon with a blade of longer than 5.5 cm is prohibited. For single-edged swords the size limit is 15 cm.
If a person is found in possession of what the police deem to be a sword, they could face up to three years in prison or a maximum fine of ¥500,000. In the case of a kitchen knife, the upper limit is two years in prison or a ¥300,000 fine.