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The changing motives behind juvenile crime in Japan

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

In a thought-provoking article in the February issue of Bungei Shunju, veteran journalist Kunio Yanagida ponders changes in the patterns of crimes committed by juveniles that have taken place since the end of World War II.

In the postwar years, poverty was the key factor driving youth crime. From the war’s end through the 1960s, the homicide rate for juveniles was 2.0 per 100,000 juveniles. By the 1970s, with the improved standards of living and more families perceiving themselves as belonging to the middle class, the rate leveled off at 0.5 per 100,000 and remained fairly constant until the 1990s, when it began a slight upward trend.

Around the 1980s, children came under unrelenting pressure from parents to enter prestigious schools and find employment with well-known companies. Some young people cracked — like the teenager in Kawasaki who in November 1980 bludgeoned both his parents to death with an aluminum baseball bat.

People born during the 1960s were to become more closely associated with “strange” crimes, such as slashing attacks against random strangers on the street.

Two sensational cases, in 1968-69 and 1997, underscore the generational shift in youth crime from economic to more elusive psychological factors. In the former, 19-year-old Norio Nagayama, a Hokkaido native from a broken home, came to Tokyo, stole a handgun from a U.S. Navy housing area, and used it in four murder-robberies. In a landmark 1987 decision, the Supreme Court, reversing the verdict of the Tokyo High Court, sentenced him to death.

During his incarceration, Nagayama became Japan’s Caryl Chessman, authoring an autobiography and numerous novels, several of which won literary prizes.

In 1997 in Kobe, “Seito Sakakibara” (an alias, as his real name was never officially made public) bludgeoned to death one primary school girl and seriously injured another before decapitating an 11-year-old special-education student. The killer taunted police in messages to the Kobe Shimbun and threatened more killings, terrorizing the city’s residents.

The nation was left astonished, aghast and appalled when Sakakibara, who was arrested June 28 of that year, turned out to be a 14-year-old junior high school student.

After nearly 30 years behind bars, Nagayama, age 48, went to the gallows on Aug. 1, 1997. From the timing of his execution, 34 days after Sakakibara’s arrest, it was clear that the authorities had proceeded with the hanging to appease public anxiety.

Sakakibara, meanwhile, underwent psychiatric treatment and was eventually released. The causes of his homicidal behavior remain buried in his medical records.

And what about youth crimes in the 21st century? Neither Nagayama nor Sakakibara had access to the Internet, unlike the unemployed young man that the media has been calling the Tsuma-yōji Otoko” (the “Toothpick Man”).

The Feb. 6 edition of Friday reported that in October, the youth posted images on YouTube in which he confessed to the theft of a bicycle and committing acts of arson. This was followed by a video of him appearing to insert a toothpick into a confection at a supermarket in the Tokyo suburb of Chofu.

The police finally issued a warrant for his arrest on Jan. 15.

“You won’t nab me, you dumb cops,” he posted, and promptly fled town. Two days later, he was nabbed aboard a Tokaido Line train near Maibara Station in Shiga Prefecture by a railway police investigator.

He reportedly remarked to his interrogators, “A hero is needed to get revisions made to the Juvenile Act.”

The nameless offender had two prior convictions, for having, on both occasions, threatened acts of random murder. Why did he want the Juvenile Act changed? Apparently for self-serving reasons: He had been released both times without having been reformed.

“While in third grade of primary school, he had attracted attention for flipping up girls’ skirts,” a former classmate tells the magazine. “Ordinarily we kids would just flip them a little ways, but he’d raise them above their waists.”

He was transferred to another school in the same prefecture, but alienated his friends.

“He was poor at communicating,” another classmate recalls.

To address that shortcoming, the boy began engaging in activities aimed at attracting attention to himself.

Several years ago, he was arrested after posting that he was planning to commit random killings at Shinjuku Station. The family court ordered him incarcerated in a reformatory in Kanagawa Prefecture. After serving a second sentence for a similar offense, he was released in August 2014 and took up residence at a halfway house in Mitaka.

A police source tells Shukan Bunshun (Jan. 29): “On Jan. 18, just before he was detained at Maibara, he visited the locale in Mie Prefecture where a female junior high school student had been murdered by an 18-year-old youth. And two years earlier he went to Kobe, to the site of the killing by Seito Sakakibara.”

He’d also apparently posted remarks to the effect that he was “practicing for a murder.” In his room at the halfway house police reportedly found a pinup photo of a female model fastened to the wall. It had been stabbed multiple times.

Of course, violent crime isn’t solely the domain of men. Just last week, police in Nagoya arrested a 19-year-old female university student on suspicion of using a hatchet to bludgeon and then fatally strangle a 77-year-old woman. Nikkan Gendai (Jan. 30) reported that the accused had told her interrogators, “I wanted to kill someone, it didn’t matter who.”

She had previously tweeted that “there are lots of people I want to kill.”

The tabloid notes that the Nagoya case bears remarkable similarities with a murder and decapitation committed six months ago by a 16-year-old female high school student in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture.

In both cases warning signs had been evident for years, but people close to the young women failed to inhibit their homicidal urges.

At least the one saving grace in the Toothpick Man affair, as Shukan Bunshun concludes, is that the youth’s interest in violent crime never progressed beyond the stage of twisted fascination. So far, anyway.