For activist lawyer Taketoshi Nakayama, a crusading legal career was almost predestined, having grown up as the son of a human-rights campaigner in a household keenly aware of the injustices faced by marginalized members of Japanese society.

“My father required me to memorize the Constitution, particularly the equal-protection Article 14, by posting it on the wall,” said Nakayama, 69, who was born into a poor family in a socially disadvantaged “buraku” area of Fukuoka Prefecture.

His father was involved in human-rights activism while working as a cobbler, and his mother collected secondhand goods for almost 40 years to support the family.

“We had only limited jobs, such as collection of waste materials and construction work, and I myself faced various discrimination,” he said. “But my father expected me to overcome the situation.”

Taking high school and college courses by night and working during the day to cover tuition, he was certified as a lawyer in Tokyo in 1971. Soon after, he encountered what would go on to become a notorious murder case involving a defendant also with buraku origins.

The defendant, Kazuo Ishikawa, had been sentenced to hang for murdering a 16-year-old high school girl in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, on May 1, 1963, and appealed to the Tokyo High Court for an acquittal.

Three days before the girl’s body was found, a ransom note demanding ¥200,000 was delivered to the girl’s home. Ishikawa, then a construction assistant, was later arrested.

Given reservations in the court ruling, Nakayama joined Ishikawa’s defense team, eventually becoming the chief lawyer. Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the murder, widely known as the Sayama Incident, the two men’s efforts to seek justice continue.

Although Ishikawa maintained his innocence, the high court only commuted his death sentence to life in prison. This was finalized by the Supreme Court in 1977. Following his parole in December 1994, Ishikawa, now 74, filed a third petition for a retrial with the high court in 2006.

Nakayama’s father, who moved to Tokyo from Fukuoka, also worked to help prove Ishikawa’s innocence until his death in 1986 at the age of 73.

“Thus, it is a struggle not only of mine but also of my late father,” Nakayama said.

“Police were apparently targeting those living in the buraku district” based on the preconceived notion that it was a breeding ground for crime,” Nakayama said. Testimony against Ishikawa “was influenced by such prejudice. The courts also convicted him, based on doubtful evidence, without examining the irresponsible investigation.”

People in buraku districts are descendants of social outcasts during the feudal era. Many still face discrimination, including when marrying and seeking jobs.

Since the latest plea to reopen the case was filed, prosecutors have newly disclosed around 100 items of evidence at the defense’s request, including handwritten papers by Ishikawa following his arrest and recordings of his interrogation.

Based on this evidence, the defense has submitted to the court the results of handwriting experts’ analyses, which conclude that Ishikawa’s writing does not match the ransom note delivered to the victim’s family.

In the process of the trial, the defense has also claimed that Ishikawa was unable to write an elaborate letter such as the ransom note since he did not have even an elementary-level education, instead quitting school to work to supplement his family’s meager income.

The defense also plans to conduct a psychological evaluation of the recordings in the hopes of proving his confession was made under duress.

Ishikawa said he confessed because investigators threatened to arrest his older brother, the family’s breadwinner, if he refused to admit guilt.

According to Ishikawa, authorities claimed he would be released from prison in 10 years if he pleaded guilty.

Having been involved in petty crime, he believed he had no choice but to serve the term.

“I was a roughneck at that time,” he said.

Busying himself now with seeking public support for his effort to reopen the case, Ishikawa said he still feels the “invisible handcuffs.”

More than 18 years after his release, he is required to meet a probation officer twice a month and report his whereabouts to the Justice Ministry, while being denied the right to vote.

“Such restrictions will continue throughout my life unless I’m acquitted,” he said.

Despite the travails of the past 50 years, Ishikawa doesn’t see his time as wasted, citing his chance to improve his literacy in prison.

“I would have been unable to read and write if I had not been convicted,” he said.

This sentiment is shared by his wife, Sachiko, 66, who also hails from a buraku district in Tokushima Prefecture and married him on the second anniversary of his release.

“I had concealed my background, but I was changed by his words that discrimination will not be eliminated as long as victims bear it silently,” his wife said.

“His way of living has given me energy to live, and it has also influenced many other people. His struggle over the past 50 years has not been wasted.”

Nakayama said he had learned from Ishikawa.

“Mr. Ishikawa was an ordinary hoodlum — I could have been like him,” Nakayama said. “But he has changed by learning how to read and write in prison and has gained self-discipline despite his continuing hardships.”

Ishikawa once noted in a prison letter to Nakayama: “I don’t resent the fact that I could not get an education, but I have no patience for the authorities who treated me cruelly.”

Reflecting an awareness of human rights taken from his father and from his involvement in the Sayama Incident, Nakayama is now representing survivors of the Tokyo air raids during World War II in a damages suit against the state.

“We have argued that the state should pay reparations not only to military personnel but also to civilian victims of air raids, including war orphans, who were left unattended,” Nakayama said, indicating the state’s postwar reparation policy violates the Constitution’s Article 14.

It stipulates: “All people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”

The survivors still suffer the aftereffects and trauma of the air raids, and with the average age of the 77 plaintiffs around 80 years old, Nakayama hopes to win a settlement as quickly as possible.

Ishikawa, for his part, has a dream he wants to fulfill if he is acquitted and can find the time.

“I hope to attend a night junior high school, as I have neither elementary nor junior high school diplomas.”

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