By next week, the media will start compiling lists of the top news stories of 2012. The short list can be expected to include natural and manmade disasters, political bombshells, international disputes, indiscretions by celebrities in the worlds of sports and entertainment and, of course, sensational crimes.

For the latter, the year’s top story in Japan is almost certain to be the Amagasaki renzoku fushin-shi jiken (Amagasaki incident involving a series of suspicious deaths).

On Oct. 30, a metal drum filled with concrete and containing the corpse of Jiro Hashimoto, was pulled out of the harbor in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture. Hashimoto, age 53 at the time he was believed to have been beaten to death in September last year, was the younger brother of Hisayoshi Sumida, who died at age 51 in 2005 when he “accidentally” fell off a cliff in Cape Manza, Okinawa.

Three weeks earlier police had found the body of Kazuko Oe, 66, in a metal drum at a warehouse in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. A search also turned up the skeletal remains of two women and one man under the floorboards of a weatherbeaten house in Amagasaki.

If four other persons who have been declared missing can also be presumed dead as a result of foul play, the body count is now up to 10 — one death by falling, five corpses and the four who are missing. (Some writers have suggested even more bodies may be forthcoming.) The first of these deaths appears to date as far back as 1987, when the mother of Jiro Hashimoto went missing in Amagasaki.

Six men and two women, ranging in age from 25 to 64, have been implicated in the deaths. The tabloid media has nicknamed them the “piranha family,” and in attempts to bring order to the confusion some publications have produced detailed diagrams showing the family tree, outlining the convoluted relationships between the victims and the alleged perpetrators.

The scene of at least some of the crimes was apparently a condominium in Amagasaki, where several victims appeared to have been beaten and locked in a storage shed on the veranda until they expired from starvation or dehydration. The corpses of Hashimoto and Oe were then dismembered and placed in large metal drums, which were filled with concrete.

The leading role in this shocking affair is attributed to 64-year-old Miyoko Sumida, a former operator of a “snack” establishment to whom the media refers to as a kijo (devil woman). Reportage of Sumida’s crimes briefly took on the theater of the absurd when it was revealed that the photo of her which initially ran in numerous publications was actually a completely different person — a mistake since rectified.

Sumida’s common-law husband Yutaro Azumayori, 62, has also been implicated, although his complicity in the crimes is unclear. Miyoko’s younger sister Mieko Sumida reportedly received a total of ¥90 million in life-insurance payouts from two companies following the accidental death of her husband, Hisayoshi, in 2005.

While Miyoko is known to have expensive tastes (her residence was reportedly filled with deluxe furnishings), the true motives for the killings, and degree of involvement by other family members, have yet to be clarified. Miyoko has allegedly said she would accept full blame for all the deaths, but some concerns have arisen that the prosecutors may not be able to charge her with homicide, having to settle instead for a lesser charge of injury resulting in death.

While the death penalty can be imposed for the former, maximum punishment for the latter is 20 years’ imprisonment, possibly extended to 30 years for multiple crimes. Sumida’s defense attorneys are likely to argue that she could not have foreseen the deaths.

However, it appears Sumida may have arranged for a monitor camera to be set up outside the storage sheds in which the victims were imprisoned, and it has been suggested that this might justify upping the charges against her.

“If (the accused) maintains she did not believe the first victim would die, it will be difficult to prove homicidal intent,” professor emeritus Hiroshi Itakura of Nihon University told Sunday Mainichi (Nov. 25). “But if she repeated the same actions, I suppose it’s possible that charges of homicide through ‘willful negligence’ will be recognized.”

Attorney Kazuo Mizushima told Aera (Nov. 26) he thinks the investigation into the crimes may require a year or longer. The media is digging in for the long haul.

Meanwhile the citizens of Amagasaki, a rough-and-tumble industrial town of 460,000 on Osaka’s western periphery, have been aghast at the negative publicity dumped on their town in the wake of the Sumida affair. In the latest fallout, Aera noted that when 15 middle school students from neighboring Nishinomiya were scheduled to tour local factories earlier this month, only three showed up.

Citing a 2006 survey of residents of six Kansai prefectures, Aera noted that 61.9 percent of respondents said they regarded Amagasaki as a town with a poor public-safety record, and 57.6 percent considered it “dirty.” But much progress has been made in reducing the city’s once-notorious air pollution, and residents — despite the stigma brought on by the recent revelations — generally give their city better marks than do outsiders.

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