Killer’s letters apt social study, 40 years on

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

KASHIWA, Chiba Pref. (Kyodo) When Satoshi Kamata heard about a 25-year-old temporary worker going on a stabbing spree in Tokyo’s Akihabara district last June, he was transported back to the late 1960s.

“I thought that Norio Nagayama had emerged again after 40 years,” Kamata, a 70-year-old freelance journalist, said in reference to the 19-year-old who shot four people to death in 1968 and went on to write a number of influential books behind bars. He was executed in August 1997.

Forty years have passed since Nagayama was arrested on April 7, 1969, but there is still a wealth of documents throwing light on his prison life, including hundreds of letters he received from prominent as well as unknown people, including Kamata.

The letters, stored at a supporter’s home in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, indicate how the so-called Nagayama Incident sent shock waves through Japanese society as it emerged from the postwar high economic growth era, when huge numbers of junior high school graduates like Nagayama rushed to Tokyo and other big cities from rural areas in search of jobs.

Such teenagers were hailed as “golden eggs,” but most were from poor backgrounds like Nagayama. The Akihabara killer, who left seven people dead and 10 injured, likewise was having a rough time financially.

Born into extreme poverty in Abashiri, Hokkaido, Nagayama and his three siblings were abandoned in the dead of winter when his mother ran off to her native Aomori Prefecture. His father, a problem gambler, disappeared and was later found dead at a train station in Gifu.

His mother was eventually prevailed upon to take the kids back, and they lived together in Aomori until Nagayama struck out alone for Tokyo at the age of 15.

After his incarceration, Nagayama turned to study and became convinced that poverty and ignorance had led him to commit his crimes.

He stole the gun and bullets he used for the murders from a residence at the U.S. base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

His best-selling autobiography, “Tears of Ignorance,” subtitled “To Junior High School Graduates, the Golden Eggs” and published in 1971, deals largely with the poverty he experienced.

“I thought I could understand his message, as I was also a young man who came up to Tokyo from a poor rural area in Aomori Prefecture like Nagayama,” said Kamata, who took on menial work for three years before enrolling in college. “I considered his crimes my own issue and an issue of this society.”

While Nagayama was initially sentenced to death by a lower court in 1979, the Tokyo High Court commuted the sentence in 1981, saying “the government should have rescued the defendant from his poor surroundings. It would be unfair to ignore the lack of proper welfare policies and lay all the responsibility on him.”

But the Supreme Court ordered a retrial, which eventually led the high court to reverse its decision and sentence him to hang.

Munesuke Mita, a prominent sociologist, also wrote to Nagayama.

He had just started an academic career at the University of Tokyo when he sent a letter to Nagayama in April 1973 to seek comments on his dissertation on city theory, in which he analyzed the struggles of small-town young males who arrive in big cities and suffer exclusion, citing the example of a boy named “N.N” — apparently Norio Nagayama.

“I was wondering in those days if students were interested in sociology,” Mita, 71, said. “Sociology must show how people face each other amid distress and agony. I think ‘Tears of Ignorance’ provides us with clues to studying issues such as family, rural as well as urban areas, crime, poverty and discrimination.”

Mita, now a professor emeritus at the university, asked Nagayama in the letter to check whether there were any misunderstandings in his paper.

“I expected a harsh reaction, but he responded that he was very interested in my thesis,” Mita said.

Freelance writer Kamata once met with Nagayama at the Tokyo Detention House. He also sent him some letters and picture postcards mainly from destinations for his research trips.

A postcard from Sapporo noted: “They have much more snow here than usual. We used to have a lot of snow in Aomori, didn’t we?,” while another postcard from Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, said, “You must feel relieved as the spring has come. Please take care of yourself.”

“I thought he would be able to feel relaxed when he saw the postcards,” Kamata said. He also encouraged Nagayama to continue writing about his repentance “as the representative of the golden eggs.”

Nagayama was reputed to have regretted that his victims were just ordinary people — two security guards and two taxi drivers. Kamata said the Akihabara killer, who is also from Aomori and lived out of a suitcase, may end up having the same sort of regret.

“We will continue to see such people who express their disgust by getting mad, and we have to think seriously about how to face it on a societal level,” Kamata added.

Nagayama’s books include the award-winning “Kibashi” (“Wooden Bridge”) published in 1983.

Around ¥15 million of his royalties has been donated to poor children, particularly in Peru, based on his hope that poor and working children won’t slip into evil as he did.

“We supported Nagayama as he desperately tried to face what he had done, and we wanted him to continue living,” said Michie Ichihara, who keeps the letters.

The Peruvian children who received the donations from Nagayama have said that while they respect his help for them, they never plan to be like him, according to Ichihara, 62.

“I’m glad that they understand what Nagayama went through and thought,” Ichihara said.

Calling Nagayama a product of society, she also keeps carbon copies of some of his correspondence and hopes they will be used to research juvenile crimes in a bid to prevent their underlying causes.

Ichihara said she also hopes Nagayama “will be forgotten some day when people do not have to learn lessons from his experiences.”