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When criminals bask in the media spotlight

by Mark Schreiber

“Before I committed that incident, I was given many opportunities from my parents and others close to me. But I disregarded these. I never gave any consideration to my privileged situation.”

With this display of contrition, Tatsuya Ichihashi — who will soon go on trial for the murder of 22-year-old English teacher Lindsay Ann Hawker — concludes his 238-page book, “Taiho Sarerumade — Kuhaku no Ninen Nanakagetsu no Kiroku” (“Before I Was Arrested — Records of the Blank Two years and Seven months”). The book was published by Gentosha on Jan. 25 and as of Feb. 9 was rated No. 1 in nonfiction book sales by Amazon Japan.

In March 2007, police found Hawker’s corpse in a bathtub, bound and gagged, on the balcony of Ichihashi’s apartment. He slipped away from the police before they could detain him and his whereabouts over the next two and a half years were the subject of wild speculation in the media, which ran stories suggesting that he had fled the country, or was working as a drag queen in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district — a place where people know better than to ask nosy questions.

In Nov. 2009, Ichihashi was finally apprehended at Osaka port while attempting to board a ferry to Okinawa. Within a week of his arrest, he was already figuring prominently in blogs and tabloid Nikkan Gendai (Nov. 17, 2009) reported that infatuated female bloggers were bestowing him with flattering nicknames such as “Ichi-sama” (Lord Ichi) and “Tobo Oji” (the fugitive prince).

In addition to working as a day laborer in Kansai, Ichihashi sought sanctuary on Oha, a nearly uninhabited, snake infested island in the Ryukyu chain about 100 km west of Okinawa. This stint as a modern-day Robinson Crusoe seems to have fascinated the media. Shukan Post (Feb. 11) enlisted Fumiyoshi Hattori, an expert on survival in the rough, to comment that Ichihashi must have prepped for his sojourn with library research.

“Without checking in books, he wouldn’t have known what kinds of fish or plants were edible. But it doesn’t look like he read my book, or he would have known that water and rice are needed for survival,” Hattori remarks.

Meanwhile, Flash (Feb. 15) dispatched a 41-year-old reporter and 50-year-old cameraman to Oha island to live off the land. Sifting through the debris, the writer noted that Ichihashi’s attempts to fabricate a water purifier failed, resulting in dehydration. “Don’t try to imitate Ichihashi,” he advises.

Now the word on the street is that a TV or movie dramatization based on Ichihashi’s story is the works. Ichihashi has pledged that all royalties from book sales will go to his victim’s family or “some worthy public cause.”

This level of pretrial publicity may be a new twist, but other criminals have previously relished in basking in the media limelight. Issei Sagawa, who killed, mutilated and ate part of a female Dutch student in Paris in 1981, returned to Japan and eventually wound up getting billed as “Japan’s celebrity cannibal” making appearances on late-night TV and in the print media (as a restaurant reviewer). In 2000 he also published a self-illustrated comic book detailing his gruesome crime, titled “Manga Sagawa-san” (“Mr. Sagawa in Pictures”).

Ichihashi’s female counterpart would be Kazuko Fukuda. Wanted for the 1982 murder of a coworker in Matsuyama, she was apprehended in Fukui in July 1997, only 21 days before the expiration of the 15-year statute of limitations.

Fukuda’s arrest was turned into a media circus. When detectives escorted her back to Shikoku by train, she was hounded by a horde of reporters and TV cameramen, and her screams of humiliation and rage could be heard emanating from beneath the jacket flung over her face.

Fukuda died of a stroke in March 2005 while serving out a life sentence in prison, but she has not been forgotten. On the evening of Feb. 2, TBS and affiliates aired a program titled “Sekai no Kowai Onnatachi” (“Scary Women of the World”), which featured an hourlong dramatized version of Fukuda’s saga.

The most charismatic criminal in recent times was certainly Kazuyoshi Miura, who milked the role of distraught husband for all it was worth after his wife Kazumi was shot in Los Angeles in Nov. 1981, in what he claimed was an armed robbery. Three years later, Shukan Bunshun magazine began running a series of exposes titled “Bullets of Suspicion,” accusing him of orchestrating her murder for life insurance.

Miura committed suicide while in jail in Oct. 2008 following extradition from Saipan to Los Angeles on murder charges.

At the other extreme are killers who drop completely off the map. In 1997, a 14-year-old boy shocked the nation after murdering two children — one of whom he decapitated — and taunting police with a stream of bizarre messages. Referred to only as “Youth A,” he underwent years of psychiatric treatment, and after being pronounced rehabilitated was released. No one, except probation officials, knows his new name or current whereabouts. He is believed to be working somewhere in Kansai, and his complete invisibility clearly makes some people nervous. Whenever a particularly gruesome crime baffles the police, the media are wont to speculate he has once again reverted to type.