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The horrific act that connects Islamic State to a few Japanese schoolchildren

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Beheadings. Dismemberings. The world is turning into a horror movie.

The Islamic State immediately comes to mind. Terrorism is nothing new, but the Islamic State has amplified terrorism’s emotional impact — perpetrating, boasting of and broadcasting atrocities ranging from the mass slaughter of innocents to staged, scripted beheadings.

It knows what it’s doing. The revulsion it causes does the group no harm, and the admiration it inspires drives would-be fighters to its side from all over the world. Many of these raw recruits, eager for training and a mission, are citizens of countries the terrorists hate even more fiercely than ordinary decent people hate beheadings and dismemberings. With a British passport a terrorist can infiltrate Britain; with an American one, America; with a Japanese one, Japan.

Is Japan in danger? Weekly Playboy magazine poses the question, and answers that the possibility cannot be ruled out. Of course it can’t. No possibility can be ruled out, and though Japan has little directly to do with the political morass in the Middle East, simmering homegrown discontent arising from 20 years of economic stagnation and a spreading gap between the rich and the not-rich could conceivably encourage a view among those falling helplessly and desperately behind that the Islamic State represents a solution of sorts. At week’s end, in fact, there were press reports of several young Japanese men under investigation in connection with alleged plans to go to Syria to fight.

The Islamic State is ghastly but comprehensible, a more or less predictable outcome of a botched “war on terror” or, going further back, of exploitation and resentment dating back to the colonial era. But late last month police in Kobe arrested a 47-year-old man in connection with the death and dismemberment of a 6-year-old girl. What is the sane mind to make of that?

Insanity, perhaps; but that, rather like a word routinely applied to the Islamic State — evil — doesn’t tell us much; it merely expresses an appalled sense of enormity. Insanity, unlike evil, has clinical and legal definitions, but they are of little help to those of us who are not clinicians and lawyers.

It’s impossible, contemplating the Kobe case, not to have a sense of deja vu: children grotesquely murdered, sometimes by children. A by no means exhaustive list includes the 1997 murder-beheading (also in Kobe) of an 11-year-old boy by a 14-year-old boy; the 2004 murder in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, of a 12-year-old girl by an 11-year-old girl; and the murder-dismemberment this past June (also in Sasebo) of a 15-year-old girl by a 16-year-old girl.

The mind reels. What kind of problem are we dealing with? Moral? Psychological? Pathological? Social? Is society as a whole somehow to blame? Or the parents? Writing in this month’s Bungei Shunju magazine, nonfiction writer Kunio Yanagida notes that whenever a case like this arises, education authorities vow renewed efforts to “teach children the value of life.” The limpness of the phrase may go some way toward explaining why the message seems not to be getting through.

Yanagida threads the two Sasebo murders and the earlier Kobe one together in search of common themes. One is the fragility and susceptibility of a child’s mind, and it is terrifying. How easy it is for a young mind to go astray! Insufficient parental love, a sudden reverse in the family fortunes — anything can strike it, warp it, dislodge it, you never quite know how. The 16-year-old Kobe suspect lost her mother to cancer last year. A terrible blow — and yet other children lose their parents without going altogether off the deep end. Her father remarried six months later. She may have resented that. But her first need for counseling occurred long before when, aged 11, she laced two classmates’ school lunches with bleach.

Is the problem neurochemical, and therefore beyond moral judgment? In July she reportedly told her new stepmother how much she enjoyed dissecting cats; wouldn’t it be fun, she added, to kill and dissect a person? Three days later the dismembered body of her friend, Aiwa Matsuo, was found. The two girls had spent the day together.

The 1997 murder-beheading of 11-year-old Jun Hase by the 14-year-old boy who came to be known in the media as “Youth A” has proved a kind of entry into the modern era of this kind of atrocity, in part because so much has been learned from it. Youth A’s therapy was revolutionary, and is deemed a success. He was, in effect, given a new personality, and under a new identity has reentered society.

Does Youth A, asks Yanagida, teach us anything about “Girl S,” the Sasebo suspect? Youth A too showed a penchant for dissecting cats, and, like Girl S, seems to have been deprived of a fair share of parental affection. Yanagida quotes Kobe University psychologist Hisao Nakai as pointing out the sexual roots of the boy’s strange compulsions: He would masturbate while imagining himself ripping people open and devouring their innards. In young boys, Nakai says, violent and sexual impulses are undifferentiated; only around puberty does the brain separate the two. In Youth A that separation failed to occur. Is that relevant to girls, to Girl S in particular? The research to date is inconclusive. For knowledge of this kind, a very high price must be paid. Girl S will no doubt teach us much we’d prefer not to have to know.

Youth A’s new personality arose, Yanagida explains, from a carefully managed “rebirth,” a female psychologist playing the role of his mother and a male one of his father. Three years passed with no result. The first hopeful sign, the foundation on which the subsequent regeneration rested, was a normal sexual response on the boy’s part to his new “mother.”

Youth A would be 31 now. Where he is, what he’s doing and under what identity he’s doing it are well-kept secrets. It feels strange to wish him well, but what else can you wish?

Is there anything in common, mutilated corpses aside, between the Islamic State and Youth A? Between the Islamic State and Girl S? Very likely a lot of people with impressive research qualifications will be wondering the same thing.

Michael Hoffman blogs at

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