It all began with a letter from a condemned killer.
“I am pretty scared. I am about to lose heart. There are days when I tremble (with fear). I want to go to sleep in someone’s arms,” the man wrote from the Hiroshima Detention Center.
“That aside, I am looking forward to meeting you.”
The 2008 letter was written in response to a request from then freelance journalist Michiko Masuda to meet the man, who is currently appealing his death sentence.
In a widely reported case, the man was found guilty of raping and strangling Yayoi Motomura, 23, and her 11-month-old daughter, Yuka, in 1999 in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Masuda, who currently does clerical work at Hitotsubashi University, is the author of the controversial book “X wo Koroshite Nani ni naru” (“What’s to be Gained by Killing X”). (The name of the man, who was 18 when he committed the crimes, is used in the actual title of the book but withheld here.)
“For a case that was the target of a media war, there seemed to be very little about (the man’s) humanity,” Masuda said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “He was wrapped up in a veil, without a name or face.”
The book documents Masuda’s many interviews with the convicted killer, who first allowed her to make his name public.
Then in an about-face and despite the book’s questioning the purpose of his death sentence, the man asked the Hiroshima District Court to halt publication of the book and sued Masuda for damages, arguing that divulging the name of someone who committed a crime as a minor violates the Juvenile Law.
Masuda said that after repeatedly meeting the man, who is now 28, she didn’t want to refer to him by a pseudonym.
“I didn’t want the readers to just see criminal A,” Masuda said. “True, he may be a criminal, but he is also a person who laughs or worries about things.”
In November, the Hiroshima District Court rejected the man’s request for a provisional injunction to suspend the publication, acknowledging he had agreed to have his name revealed.
The court ruled that although using his name adds to the “sense of sensationalism,” the case in fact drew strong interest and the book “was published in the interest of the public.”
Experts on the Juvenile Law, however, have slammed the book, saying publicizing the man’s name spoils his chances for rehabilitation and returning to society, the underlying philosophical basis for the law.
Masuda disagrees. She said the man was tried as an adult as the courts wavered between sentencing him to life or the gallows.
“It is about life or death — the trial itself has exceeded the framework of the Juvenile Law,” Masuda said. “I wanted the people to see that he is human and not the monster image that was created.”
The Hikari slayings became notorious because the accused was a minor at the time.
Motomura’s widower, Hiroshi, has been outspoken in his pursuit of having the defendant sentenced to death and has championed the rights of victims’ families, even cofounding a support group.
The media, which covered the case extensively, labeled the defendant “the devil.”
His lawyers argued in court that he said he raped the woman after strangling her as a “ritual of resurrection” and that he stuffed the baby’s body in the closet because he thought the cartoon robotic cat Doraemon “would do something about it.”
He was described by the media as a “cunningly intelligent criminal” who knew the Juvenile Law thoroughly, Masuda said, but she later found him very different from the way he had been portrayed.
Masuda met with the defendant 25 times between August 2008 and last August and also talked with his family, friends and other acquaintances.
She said there was a side of him that was “searching for true atonement,” but at the same time his immaturity made it difficult for him to form relationships.
In the book, she notes that when he was growing up, his father beat him and his mother on a daily basis.
“I think my dad had his reasons — there were times when (the beating) was my fault, and other times when it wasn’t,” the defendant was quoted as saying.
“The most bitter thing about my father at that time was that he beat my mother.”
The mother he had tried to protect committed suicide in 1993, when he was in his first year of junior high school.
“I don’t know why she drove herself into a corner like that,” he was quoted as saying. “She could have gotten divorced or run away. But my mother had nowhere to run.”
In 2000, the Yamaguchi District Court sentenced the defendant to a life prison term. The Hiroshima High Court upheld this sentence.
Dissatisfied, the Supreme Court in 2006 returned the case to the high court.
As the trial resumed, the defendant’s image became more distorted, triggering outrage against not only him but also his defense team, which is led by Yoshihiro Yasuda, a known advocate for abolishing capital punishment.
Eventually, the lawyers also became the target of verbal abuse, being called “devils” and “lunatics.”
On handing down the death sentence in April 2008, presiding Judge Yasuhide Narazaki of the Hiroshima High Court denounced the crime as “coldblooded, cruel and inhumane.”
“By presenting false statements to reduce his criminal liability, all the while uttering words of apology and remorse, is an insult to the (victims’) family, and his attitude is far from repentant,” Narazaki ruled.
“Even with highest consideration over the defendant’s circumstances, there is no other penalty besides the death sentence.”
Masuda said she thinks there is very little chance his sentence will be overturned.
But she is hoping that by publishing the book and showing readers what the defendant is really like, maybe the public will see him in a different light.
“I am asking the readers to decide for themselves whether the death penalty is the answer after seeing a side of him that is completely different from what has been portrayed by the media,” Masuda said.
“I don’t want him to die. I want him to live and atone for his crimes.”