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Criminal notoriety for the sake of fame

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Hirofumi Watanabe, the man convicted Thursday of threatening publishers, stores, universities and basically anyone or anything that had something to do with the popular manga “Kuroko no Basuke (Kuroko’s Basketball),” has enjoyed a peculiar sort of celebrity since he was arrested in December. Prior to his apprehension, he terrorized his targets with letters demanding they remove products or cancel events associated with the series by saying he would cause mayhem otherwise.

One journalist, Hiroyuki Shinoda, was in contact with the 36-year-old suspect for two months before he was caught. Watanabe sent “messages of criminal intent” to around 500 media-related entities, but the letter Shinoda received at the offices of Tsukuru, the monthly he edits, was more direct. As Shinoda explained on his blog, the extortionist said he didn’t necessarily think other media would publish his statement (most did), but he wanted Tsukuru to print it because he considered the magazine special. If Shinoda cooperated, he promised the reporter “a big scoop,” meaning exclusive access to what he was doing and why, including details of his “secret negotiations” with Shueisha, the publisher of “Kuroko.” The suspect admired the way Tsukuru covered two other famous cases, the Wakayama curry poisoning and the arrest and prosecution of singer Masashi Tashiro, and now that another famous investigative magazine, Uwasa no Shinsho, was defunct, he felt only Tsukuru could do justice to his story.

Shinoda mentioned the message in his blog on Oct. 22 and received a second message soon thereafter, postmarked Oct. 23. In it the writer explained the threats he had made to Sophia University, of which the comic’s author, Tadatoshi Fujimaki, is an alumnus, as well as to the Tokyo high school Fujimaki attended. He then targeted TV stations that ran the animated version of the comic, and venues planning “Kuroko’s Basketball” events. Then he stopped making threats for six months and tried to negotiate with Shueisha to stop publication. When those talks broke down, he started putting poison in confections with promotional tie-ins to the comic.

Of course, the police contacted Shinoda immediately after his first blog post, and when the perpetrator specified which stores he put the poisoned items in, Shinoda gave them the letter. However, after book stores started removing copies of the manga from their shelves for fear of reprisal, Shinoda complained it was akin to “infringing on (Fujimaki’s) freedom of speech.” Eventually, he started printing the messages in Tsukuru, because it was obvious the perpetrator was communicating things to him that he wasn’t communicating to other media. It was definitely a scoop, except that the narrative was being controlled completely by the subject. Other media were doubtful of Shinoda’s intentions. Wasn’t Tsukuru encouraging this criminal by publishing his statements?

Nov. 4 was “X-Day,” when Sophia University would be holding its school festival. There were fears the extortionist would strike, and a large number of plain clothes policemen as well as TV news crews showed up in case something happened. Nothing did, and a month later police arrested Watanabe in Tokyo’s Ebisu neighborhood as he tried to mail another batch of letters. He immediately confessed.

The story might have ended there, but Shinoda continued publishing Watanabe’s messages from jail. Matters came to a head at his trial in March, when he was allowed to speak. Watanabe gave a rambling but coherent speech about how he was jealous of Fujimaki, had homosexual tendencies and as an adolescent was abused at home and bullied at school. He vowed to accept whatever punishment he received and, in fact, practically pleaded for the most severe penalty the court could give out. He also suggested that he would eventually kill himself anyway. Nevertheless, he did not express remorse over what he did, and while he took responsibility for his actions he did not apologize for them.

The judge stopped the speech after 10 minutes, but Shinoda published in full the statement Watanabe intended to make. Other media covered the courtroom performance in detail, and Watanabe read it carefully. In subsequent missives he took issue with his portrayal, denying the stereotype of the anime otaku (cartoon-obsessed nerd) and saying he was never much into animation. In fact, he wasn’t really “jealous” of Fujimaki, either, even though that’s what he told police.

At this point, Watanabe had generated fans impressed with his writing style. He reveled in the notoriety, which only spurred him on to new heights of confessional indulgence. Other media sent him letters asking his opinion about recent high-profile crimes. He had epistolary conversations, published in Tsukuru, with psychiatrist Rika Kayama, who sympathized with his situation, and Karin Amamiya, the right-wing punk turned anti-poverty activist. Watanabe rejected Kayama’s advice to seek counseling when he eventually got out of jail, saying he had no use for psychiatry and, anyway, he still intended to kill himself. When Amemiya tried to draw him out about his identification with “the working poor,” he denied the assertion, saying that the “income gap” was no big deal and the belief that social ills are at the root of most crime is a liberal fantasy.

This paradox — the ruthless felon who acts as his own lynch mob — provides a case study in the way sociopaths use the media to their own ends. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that, whatever his initial motives, Watanabe found fulfillment in the attention Shinoda afforded him.

A phrase the press often uses for criminals who manifest such tendencies is muteki-na hito, which means “a person with no enemies,” though a more correct idiomatic translation would be “someone with nothing to lose.” The person who kills in order to be arrested and put to death is an obvious example, but Watanabe seems different. He wants you to think of him as a “loser,” but in actuality he now has something to live for — fame — even if it’s based on something repellent. If suicide is the most extreme expression of passive-aggressive impulses, then Watanabe’s brand of criminal mischief is a means of boosting his self-esteem, and you can bet there will be more like him.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Do you not have editorial staff at the JT? Even by the standards usual in this paper this article was an incoherent ramble!