On the morning of Feb. 20, police were summoned to the grassy, elevated bank of the Tama River, which forms the boundary between Tokyo and Kawasaki. They found the naked body of 13-year-old junior high school student Ryota Uemura, dead of multiple stab wounds. The same morning, the partly burned remnants of Uemura’s clothing were found in a nearby park toilet, in what appeared to be an effort to destroy evidence. The boy’s cellphone was missing.
The shocking incident led several tabloids to go so far as to suggest that, considering recent events in the Middle East, Uemura’s killers may have been inspired by gruesome videos of beheadings posted on the Internet, transforming them into “Islamic State wannabes.” Indeed, if accounts that Uemura’s neck was slashed from behind while he was in a kneeling position are factual, this premise cannot entirely be ruled out.
Before the police announced the arrest of three older boys, who were first incorrectly identified as high school students, their names, addresses and other personal information had gone viral on social media, and a horde of reporters descended on the mostly blue-collar bedroom town of Kawasaki in the hunt for details.
The magazine Friday (March 20) claims that “all the other reports got it wrong: Based on cellphone records, it was Uemura, the victim, who had summoned the three older boys — named in the article as “A,” “B” and “C” — on the night of his death to ‘go out and have fun.'”
During interrogations “C” told police he was ordered to go to a convenience store to buy cigarette lighter fluid, to be used to burn the victim’s clothing. Police were inclined to accept the boy’s account of events after matching the receipt for the lighter fluid with the store’s security video that showed him making the purchase.
The main suspect was 18-year-old youth “A,” son of a Japanese father and Filipina mother. Noting that “A” had once assaulted a classmate who refused to acknowledge repeated calls from his cellphone in his junior high school days, a former classmate told the magazine, “Rather than being bad, he was the type who turned unpredictable when he lost his temper.”
“A” did not appear to warrant the description of bloodthirsty teenage “monster” as portrayed in some of the tabloids. One crony claimed the accounts that “A” had ordered Uemura to engage in shoplifting were untrue. (“He had income from his job and would treat us to bowls of beef over rice,” he said.)
The string of events that led to one boy’s death apparently began on Jan. 14, when “A,” while under the influence of alcohol, became pugnacious and punched Uemura, giving him a black eye. He immediately felt contrite and vowed to Uemura and the other boys in their group that he would give up drinking.
Later that month, however, a group of “old boys” (OBs) who had formerly attended Uemura’s junior high school saw his black eye and decided to gang up on “A.” They forced him to perform dogeza (to grovel on his knees, head touching the ground) in apology to “Kamison,” as Uemura was nicknamed by his friends.
On Feb. 12, five of the OBs from Uemura’s middle school went to A’s house and tried to force their way inside, pounding on the door and shouting into the interphone. When a neighbor summoned the police, the youths explained to the officer they were there to “patch things up” between “A” and Uemura.
They also bombarded “A” with messages via the Line smartphone application, which he finally blocked.
“After that, things escalated,” “A” told interrogators after his arrest. “I did something to Kamison that can’t be undone.”
Yukan Fuji (March 11) quotes Toin University of Yokohama professor Mikio Kawai, an authority on juvenile crime, as saying: “This case is conspicuous in the way a trivial act escalated into a major crime. We can regard the trend toward crimes of a childish nature as being one of the contributing factors.”
Kawai noted that in the past, the typical pattern of delinquency was for the leader of a group to direct subordinates to commit mischief, i.e., according to a hierarchical structure. However, now changes can be seen in that structure. “Both boys and girls are showing a trend toward avoiding vertical relationships, instead forming loosely organized groups,” says Kawai. “This is facilitated by Line and other social networking tools. Because of this, when members of a group begin to run amok there’s nothing to restrain them.”
The Kawasaki killing of Feb. 20, and one a few weeks earlier by a 19-year-old girl in Nagoya, cast the spotlight on violent crimes by juveniles but are there really so many, and are they on the increase? According to police statistics nationwide, the number of homicides committed by minors over the previous 10 years has averaged 54.5 per year.
While all types of reported crimes by juveniles, including homicide, have declined, cases of ijime (bullying) have not. The story at the top of the Sankei Shimbun’s front page on the Oct. 17 edition read “Shōgakkō ijime saita: Bōryoku koi wa ichiman-ken kosu” (“Highest [incidence] of bullying at primary schools: Violent incidents pass 10,000”).
According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the annual number of reported incidents of bullying at elementary, junior and senior high schools during the 2013 academic year reached 185,860.
The number of violent bullying incidents rose year on year by 3,509 to 59,345, of which cases involving elementary schoolchildren passed 10,000 for the first time ever.
In terms of bullying involving acts of violence, Osaka Prefecture topped the nation with 10.5 incidents per 1,000 children, more than double the nationwide average of 4.3 incidents.
In efforts to cope with the problems, Osaka administrators will be initiating a new system from next month, under which acts of violence will be classified into such categories as “extreme violence,” “robbery or arson,” “possession of weapon” and so on. The new plan calls for violent youth offenders from different schools to be grouped together in a separate class, with the aim of minimizing disruption. Some objections have been raised to this, claiming this constitutes a form of expulsion.
If one thing’s for certain, the Uemura slaying has provoked a blizzard of strong emotions. At the boy’s wake, reported Shukan Shincho (March 19), a middle-aged woman approached the boy’s mother and, after exchanging bows, delivered several sharp slaps to the surprised mother’s face. “You can’t know what it’s been like!” the mother exclaimed, breaking down in tears. The woman then pulled her into a tight embrace.
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