Executed killer’s mistakes, benevolence help poverty-stricken Peruvian kids

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

Yutaka Yoshii was too involved in the 1960s student demonstrations in Tokyo to pay much attention to the arrest of a 19-year-old youth in 1969 over four fatal shootings.

Yuji Sunaga, meanwhile, who was born 10 years after Norio Nagayama’s arrest in Tokyo, for a long time knew next to nothing about the four homicides he committed between October and November 1968.

On the 15th anniversary of Nagayama’s execution Aug. 1, 1997, at age 48, a group of people, including Yoshii, now 66, and Sunaga, 33, is working to spread the killer’s final wish — that others wouldn’t repeat his mistakes.

Born into extreme poverty and neglected as a child, Nagayama moved to Tokyo in search of work after graduating from junior high school in Aomori Prefecture in 1965, in the middle of the postwar boom years.

Struggling to overcome his loneliness and sense of inferiority as a newcomer in the capital, he ended up stealing a gun and ammunition from a residence on a U.S. military base in Kanagawa Prefecture. He then went on to slaughter four people, starting on Oct. 11, 1968.

Nagayama started studying and writing after his arrest the following April, and became convinced that “poverty and ignorance” were the factors behind his crimes. While incarcerated, he published books, including a best-selling autobiography called “Tears of Ignorance” and the award-winning novel “Wooden Bridge.”

He donated the royalties from the books to relatives of his victims — two taxi drivers and two security guards — recognizing he had killed ordinary working-class people just like himself. But some of the kin refused to accept any blood money.

Due to his poverty-stricken upbringing, Nagayama in his will specified that future royalties also be used to support poor children in Peru and help them to avoid leading similar lives to his. This prompted his lawyers and supporters to establish the Nagayama Children Fund to handle the money.

His supporters believe Nagayama was inspired by a newspaper report about child workers in Peru that was carried in February 1997 as a sidebar to coverage of the hostage crisis at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima.

After backpacking around Central and South America and living in Peru’s capital since 1982, Yoshii said, “I have become aware that society itself sometimes brings about crimes. I myself was robbed in Peru, and I thought that the hard luck of the robber — poverty — was the cause. . . . This overlaps with Nagayama’s life experiences.”

Yoshii, a freelance photographer who frequently travels back to Japan to organize exhibitions in the South American nation, has helped put the Nagayama fund in contact with certain children’s groups he knows in Peru.

“Under their tough living conditions, children in Peru understand well what Nagayama thought and hoped for,” he said. “They know that while it is not good enough for them just to receive something from others, they need to expand their thoughts and find a foothold in society.”

Nagayama was initially sentenced to death in 1979, but the Tokyo High Court commuted the ruling to a life sentence in 1981, arguing the government had failed to rescue him from his poor surroundings and that it would be “unfair to ignore the lack of proper welfare policies and lay all the responsibility on the defendant.” Having seemingly escaped the gallows, Nagayama was filled with a desire to continue writing.

But the Supreme Court ordered a retrial, which eventually led the high court to reverse its earlier ruling and hand down the death penalty again. The ruling was finalized in 1990.

“I think the high court’s first decision was quite acceptable,” Yoshii said. “Executions are the sign of an immature society that does not accept its own responsibility for a crime. Killing convicts solves nothing.”

As for Sunaga, he learned about Nagayama’s life and final will while studying at a free school for those who drop out of regular schools. He switched schools after he was bullied as a fourth-grader.

Sunaga visited Peru in 2001 together with his classmates at the free school for exchanges with Peruvian children, mainly in deprived areas.

“They talked enthusiastically about Nagayama, and said he was both a victim and an offender,” Sunaga recalled. “Since then, I have been thinking about how Nagayama continues to influence people on the other side of the world even after his execution.”

Looking back at his own childhood, Sunaga, now editor of a Tokyo-based publisher, feels he shares Nagayama’s sense of being pushed into isolation, in his case at school.

“But it was fortunate for me that I had a place to live — the free school, where I was encouraged by encounters with various people and could learn about the world,” Sunaga said.

“Nagayama didn’t have any such opportunities until his arrest. Times have changed since he committed the crimes, but the social structures that drive people into a corner and isolation still remain.”

Sunaga eventually became a member of the Nagayama fund, which holds annual charity concerts to raise funds around the anniversary of Nagayama’s hanging. This year’s event was held July 22 at the Bunkyo Civic Center in Tokyo.

Kyoko Otani, a defense lawyer for Nagayama during his trial, said the arrest and detention “gave him the opportunity to study, although I find it sad that he did not enjoy such opportunities before committing his crimes. If he had had certain relationships with others, he would still be alive.

“On the other hand, he created unexpected ties with Peruvian children, who have inherited his desire to avoid repeating his mistakes,” said Otani, who heads the Nagayama fund. “We will continue supporting them as long as we can.”

The fund provides around ¥500,000 worth of scholarships to some 30 college and vocational training school students annually, covering half their tuition costs, according to Yoshii. “They have been encouraged by Nagayama’s legacy,” he said.