Less than a week after the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki on Jan. 17, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia had not only recorded the ruling in its entry on Miyazaki, but had added an incisive note. When the Miyazaki case was dominating the headlines in 1989, he was referred to as the “Otaku Killer,” but now, says Wikipedia, Japanese media tend to refer to him only as a “child murderer.”

It’s generally agreed that the word “otaku,” which roughly describes Japanese men with undeveloped social skills and an obsession for pop culture, in particular anime and manga, did not enter the average person’s vocabulary until the Miyazaki case. Police found around 6,000 videotapes in his room as well as countless comic books. Prior to the young printing assistant’s arrest for the murder of four little girls in Saitama Prefecture, otaku was a subculture that was mostly invisible. The horrific nature of the killings demonized otaku as soon as they were defined, and until the late 1990s the label had negative connotations.

According to writer Kaoru Takamura in a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun, otaku now come out to “gather in the light of day,” most famously in Akihabara, which has become their Mecca. The otaku market, also referred to as moe, is estimated to be worth 88 billion yen a year. “Elementary school-age idols are no longer unusual,” Takamura points out, referring to businesses that hire women to dress up like maids and cartoon characters and act like little girls while otaku take their pictures. The formerly taboo interests of these men “are now consumed openly.” Takamura asks what it is we’ve learned from the Miyazaki case.

Obviously, the media no longer refers to Miyazaki as the Otaku Killer because they are afraid of offending a demographic that now represents a viable market. But how did we get from Miyazaki to moe?

In another Asahi article published just before the Supreme Court ruling, Shinobu Yoshioka, the author of a book about the Miyazaki case, paints a portrait of the killer as a blank; a man who can only connect to society by “collecting things that are popular.” Miyazaki’s introversion has been said to be as a result of a physical handicap — he was born with deformed wrists. But while this attribute certainly added to his self-consciousness, Yoshioka says that, contrary to Miyazaki’s own statements, he could find no proof that he was bullied or ridiculed as a child because of it.

In addition, Miyazaki’s profile as a sexual deviant is misleading. Some of his actions were undeniably deviant — dismembering the bodies, eating the flesh of his victims, sleeping next to the corpses, drinking blood, tormenting one girl’s parents with letters — but Yoshioka discerned nothing sexual about them. There is no evidence to support prosecutors’ claims that he masturbated in front of the corpses or media reports that said he had sex with them. In addition, every article about Miyazaki’s infamous videotape collection mentions that it consisted of child pornography and slasher movies, but according to police records only about 1 percent of the tapes could qualify as either.

Yoshioka’s own assessment is that Miyazaki suffers from a delusional persecution complex. He dismisses the lengthy psychiatric assessments as being useless, a “mess” of uncoordinated information whose contradictory conclusions were arrived at simply to fulfill the prosecution’s purpose, which was to guarantee that Miyazaki gets the death penalty. In order to do that the prosecution had to prove that Miyazaki was a monster but not mentally incapacitated. Along the way they neglected to figure out what makes him tick.

Hiroyuki Shinoda, the editor of the monthly So, conducted a 10-year correspondence with Miyazaki, which produced 200 letters and a book authored by the killer called “Yume no Naka (Inside a Dream).” Shinoda asserts that Miyazaki is incapable of acknowledging his involvement in his own trial — he acts as if it’s happening to someone else. Even after his death sentence, he casually asked Shinoda to continue taping news reports that he never watches and pick up the catalog to an annual comics convention. He’s still collecting, still an otaku.

A journalist who specializes in crimes against children was quoted in Shukan Asahi as saying that young men who saw pictures on TV of Miyazaki’s room, with its shelves of videos and comics, “thought it looked just like their rooms.” The same article mentions that the rate of child-murder cases has not increased since 1989, but the portion of those involving sexual deviance has. Moreover, pedophilia cases have shifted from criminals who sought sex with children because they could not handle sex with adults to criminals who are genuine pedophiles. Though the journalist doesn’t say all otaku are pedophiles, she does say that the greater acceptance of otaku makes it easier for those with pedophilic tendencies to “blend in” and act out their desires.

Miyazaki is not, strictly speaking, a pedophile, but the media has transformed him into an all-purpose model of one. Takamura says that all the arguments about mental capacity lead us nowhere. The important thing is to recognize how antisocial tendencies manifest themselves as murderous impulses, something that becomes more and more difficult in a world that is itself obsessed with visual information regardless of content.

We’re all otaku now.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.