National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Grisly Sasebo murder defies explanation

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Homicides involving dismemberment, referred to in Japanese as bara-bara jiken (scattered incidents), fall into a wider category known as ryōki hanzai (bizarre crimes) — written with kanji meaning “hunting the strange.” Typically when minors were involved in such cases they tended to be victims, not perpetrators.

That changed with a shocking murder-decapitation that took place in 1997.

On the morning of May 27, 1997, the head of an 11-year-old boy was found outside the gate of a middle school in Kobe’s Suma Ward. Stuffed into the victim’s mouth was a menacing note, written in red pen. Identifying himself in cryptic characters that read “Sakakibara Seito,” the killer had written: “This is the beginning of the game … You police guys stop me if you can … I desperately want to see people die, it is a thrill for me to commit murder. A bloody judgment is needed for my years of great bitterness.”

While residents teetered on the verge of hysteria, Kobe’s police embarked on one of the most intensive manhunts in Japan’s modern history. Four weeks later, the shock was compounded as the police announced the arrest of a 14-year-old boy.

“Youth A,” as he was referred to in the media — the normal practice is to accord anonymity to juvenile offenders — spent six years and five months in custody, during which he received psychological counseling to treat his propensity toward “sexual sadism,” as well as undergoing occupational training. Since his release (with a new identity), no evidence of recidivist behavior has surfaced.

In terms of shock value, the murder that took place in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, on July 26 this year is unlikely to surpass that of Kobe’s, mainly because the suspect was immediately apprehended. According to police and media reports, the pseudonymous “A-ko” (“Girl A”), a 16-year-old female high school student residing in an apartment living apart from her parents, allegedly used a hammer to bludgeon her 15-year-old classmate, Aiwa Matsuo, after which she fatally strangled her victim with a dog leash. She then used a saw to sever Matsuo’s head and left hand at the wrist, as well as to mutilate her torso.

According to Shukan Gendai (Aug. 16-23), the girl’s purchase of the tools used in the murder and dismemberment would indicate the killing had been planned.

The public was equally shocked to learn that the accused belongs to an elite, affluent model family. Her father is one of Kyushu’s top attorneys, principal in a firm that employs seven lawyers. Her late mother, a graduate of the University of Tokyo, was well known for philanthropic social activities. Her elder brother excelled academically, and A-ko was regarded as a precocious child who played classical piano and competed at the national level in speed skating.

Media accounts make it clear that for quite some time, however, A-ko had fallen into a prolonged tailspin of destructive behavior.

“A ‘major incident’ occurred when A-ko was in her sixth year of primary school,” a neighbor relates to Shukan Bunshun (Aug. 7). “She concocted a mixture of bleach and detergent in a way that masked their taste, and then used a dropper to squirt it into servings at the school cafeteria.

“After seeing her do it for three days, a boy reported it to a teacher. But when the subject was raised at a PTA meeting, the school passed it off as a ‘spat between students’ and took no further action,” a parent tells the magazine. “The girl’s father being an attorney, it appears he warned others that ‘I can take you to court’ or that ‘(Action against her) would constitute a such-and-such crime.’ ”

But what was it that pushed A-ko over the edge to homicidal violence? Josei Jishin (Aug. 19-26) is convinced it was the remarriage of her father only three months after her mother’s death from pancreatic cancer last October.

Her 53-year-old father’s new bride, reportedly 20 years his junior, had worked in show business and appeared in advertisements.

“Some time in March, I heard that she attacked her sleeping father with an aluminum baseball bat, fracturing his skull and cracking a tooth. I saw him with a bandage on his head,” a neighbor is quoted as saying.

A-ko moved out of the family’s house to a one-room apartment adjacent to her father’s law office. The new term at her high school began from April, but she only attended for three days.

“Actually, the reason Aiwa visited A-ko’s apartment was out of concern about her family life and truancy from school,” an acquaintance of the victim’s mother tells Shukan Bunshun. “Aiwa’s mother also knew about A-ko’s situation and encouraged her daughter to help her out as a friend. She blames herself, and broke down in tears at the wake and funeral.”

“When girls lose their mothers during puberty, they can come to terms with it over the course of time,” criminal psychiatrist Akira Fukushima, professor emeritus at Sophia University, tells Shukan Asahi (Aug. 15). “Her father’s remarriage, so soon after the death of his wife, may have made her feel as though she was deprived of her father’s love, which perhaps unleashed extreme feelings that triggered the incident.”

A-ko, like her male predecessor in Kobe, may eventually be rehabilitated and permitted to return to society. But nothing, rues Shukan Asahi, will restore the life of her victim.

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