10 years after hanging, killer still offers lessons to be learned



Even though 10 years have passed since Norio Nagayama was executed for the murder of four people, his name still gets into the news.

In debates over capital punishment, the so-called Nagayama Criteria is referred to as a basic guideline for applying the death sentence, and royalties from his novels written in prison have supported disadvantaged children overseas, particularly in Peru, where his works have helped promote mutual exchanges with Japan.

Evaluation of his crimes and achievements remains a big issue among legal experts and capital punishment foes on the 10th anniversary of his death.

Nagayama was hanged Aug. 1, 1997, for killing four people in a shooting spree in 1968 at age 19. He wrote several novels behind bars, including the 1971 best-seller “Muchi no Namida” (“Tears of Ignorance”), and donated the royalties to his victims’ relatives.

In his will, he said the royalties should also be donated to poor and working kids around the world, in the hope of preventing them from slipping into evil ways, as he did in his teens, as a result of poverty and ignorance.

To carry out the will, his lawyers and supporters established the Nagayama Children Fund to manage the royalties. To raise more money, they held a charity concert Saturday in Kawasaki ahead of the 10th anniversary of his execution.

An audience of 350 took in a performance of a Tsugaru shamisen, an instrument originating in what is now Aomori Prefecture, where Nagayama spent his childhood in abject poverty. It was the fourth concert of its kind, and the fund donated some ¥1.5 million from the previous three concerts to scholarships for working children in Peru, together with some ¥13 million from the book royalties.

Money was also made available for the travel costs of Peruvian children who visited Japan to meet kids here.

“I have spent the summers remembering the dead, for the last 10 years (since the execution), but I have also had the opportunity to interact with Peruvian people and others during that time,” Kyoko Otani, Nagayama’s former lawyer and now the head of the fund, told the audience. “We will continue to hold the charity concert every year in order to further promote these exchanges.”

In Peru, an association of working children will hold a symposium in Lima on Aug. 14 to look back on Nagayama’s life, with Yutaka Yoshii, one of the organizers of the Nagayama Children Fund and a freelance photographer living in Peru, scheduled to give a speech.

“I would like to tell Peruvian people about the history of Nagayama and what he left behind for Peruvian children, so his wishes could be carried out and remembered there,” Yoshii said.

Among the audience Saturday in Kawasaki was Koji Yakushiji, a family court investigator who recently published the book “Words That Could Not be Heard — Norio Nagayama.”

In the book, he presents several theories about the environment in which Nagayama grew up, based on his autobiographical novels, and concluded his crimes could have been prevented if there had been sufficient guidance and an effective probation system in place.

Born into a poor family in 1949, Nagayama was abandoned by his mother in a bleak house in Abashiri, Hokkaido, in the middle of winter at the age of 5. His father died in a ditch.

He learned how to read and write in prison, and was convinced that poverty and ignorance led him to his crimes.

“During more than 30 years working as a family court investigator, I have encountered many children who live in extreme poverty as Nagayama did, and poverty (surrounding juvenile delinquents) still exists,” Yakushiji said.

“Even now, the Nagayama case provides us with precious lessons about how to curb juvenile delinquency — for example, about how we should improve the probation system (for children) which has not seen any reforms since the days of Nagayama,” said Yakushiji, 57, who is from the same generation as Nagayama.

The Nagayama case recently draw attention after the Supreme Court sent back a murder case to the Hiroshima High Court, which had handed down a life sentence to a man accused of killing a 23-year-old woman and her 11-month-old baby in 1999 in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, when he was 18.

Nagayama, also a minor at the time of his crimes, was once sentenced to life in prison by the Tokyo High Court, which said: “The government should have saved the accused from his poor surroundings. It would be unfair to ignore the lack of proper welfare policies and lay all the responsibility on him.”

But the Supreme Court scrapped the high court verdict and ordered a retrial in 1983, presenting the guidelines for applying the death sentence.

The guidelines indicate a death sentence is permissible only when it is deemed unavoidable to prevent further crimes and if the defendant’s criminal responsibility is grave, considering such circumstances as the number of people killed, the situation surrounding the motive for the crime, the defendant’s age and the feelings of the victims’ relatives.

In the ruling on the Hikari murder case, the top court said it does not recognize there was sufficient reason for the high court to have forgone the death sentence.

The lawyers for the defendant criticized the decision as a deviation from the Nagayama Criteria, arguing the top court had previously indicated a death sentence is an exceptional punishment, but turned that stance into one that suggests not giving the death sentence should involve special reasons.