A 14-year-old boy spends more than six years in a medical reformatory after killing two school children in Kobe in 1997. He is released on parole in 2004.
An 11-year-old girl is sentenced to two years of confinement at a state-run facility for girls in Tochigi Prefecture after killing her classmate in Sasebo in 2004. Her sentence is extended until 2008.
An 18-year-old boy is charged with the murder of Ryota Uemura after the 13-year-old’s naked body was found near the Tama River in Kawasaki in late February. Two 17-year-olds are also charged with causing injury resulting in the teen’s death.
The above accounts are just a handful of examples of heinous crimes committed by minors over the past 20 years. They make headlines for days, sometimes weeks, horrifying the nation with the brutality of the killings and triggering public outrage over the protection the youths receive under Juvenile Law, which conceals their identity and administers reduced sentences.
Most recently, the murder of a 13-year-old boy in Kawasaki spurred an online manhunt. Personal information on the 18-year-old leader of the trio that allegedly killed the boy went viral — his name, photographs of the teen and his family, and his home address could all be found with a simple Google search.
In light of the recent murder, the country is once again split over whether or not to revise the Juvenile Law. With children finding it easier to access violent images via the Internet, we find ourselves asking if young people have become more unpredictable and dangerous. Is handing down tougher penalties the only way to stop them? More succinctly, what is justice — both for the minors who have committed such crimes, as well as the victims and the families whose lives have been torn apart?
Focus on reform, not punishment
The Juvenile Law was first enacted in 1948. The legislation aimed for the “sound development” of minors, focusing on education and reform rather than punishment. Juvenile and civil law states that the age of majority — the age at which a person has the legal rights and responsibilities of an adult — is 20 years old. The current Diet session is poised to approve an amendment to the Public Offices Election Law that will lower the voting age from 20 to 18, and some lawmakers are getting ready to lower the age of majority to 18 altogether.
For more than half a century, however, the Juvenile Law has basically remained untouched. Since the 1997 case, when a 14-year-old boy who called himself “Seito Sakakibara” killed two elementary school children and injured three others in Kobe, however, the public’s calls for harsher punishment on minors has grown stronger, spurring various amendments to legislation. In 2000, the law was amended to lower the age of minors who could be tried as an adult from 16 to 14.
In 2007, the age of minors who can be sent to juvenile correctional facilities was lowered from 14 and older to “around 12” after an elementary school girl stabbed her classmate to death with a utility knife. In 2014, the revision went further and raised the maximum prison term from 15 to 20 years for minors who commit a serious crime before they turn 18.
Ruriko Take, who represents a group for victims’ families of juvenile crime, welcomes the changes, saying the law is finally becoming more accurate.
“We are not demanding harsher penalties,” Take says. “We are just asking for a punishment that is appropriate for the crime that has been committed.”
Take’s 16-year-old son was attacked and killed by a group of six boys in November 1996. His death, however, was only the beginning of her nightmare.
Because the offenders were minors, the case was handled by the local family court, completely behind closed doors. Take was not only shut out of the court proceedings, she was also not allowed to make a statement on her son’s behalf. Authorities also refused to give her any details of the case, including the names of the youths who killed her son. In the end, only one young person appeared before a family court judge, who ruled that that the youth had to spend 10 months in a reformatory.
“For a long time, people only focused on protecting a juvenile offender’s rights,” Take says. “I am not dismissing the importance of educating these minors but other factors should also be taken into consideration. Back then, the victims and their families lacked support.”
Over the years, revisions to the Juvenile Law have moderately improved the situation for victims and their families. In 2008, the law was amended to allow victims or their families to attend family court hearings. A system has also been introduced to allow victims or their families to make statements during hearings and be informed of the details of any ruling, including any statements made by the accused and his or her parents.
Masato Takahashi, a lawyer who specializes in crime victims’ rights, says the fundamental spirit of the Juvenile Law does not match the gravity of some of the crimes committed today. Take Article 22, he says, which stipulates that the hearings should be held “cordially and amicably.”
Times have changed since the Juvenile Law was first enacted in 1948, Takahashi says, adding that many youths were engaged in petty theft for survival in the postwar years.
“How do you prevent crime with a law that wants to resolve murder cases amicably?” Takahashi says. “The Juvenile Law is outdated.”
Another clause in the legislation that has triggered controversy is Article 61, which prohibits media organizations from revealing the name of the juvenile offender. Time and time again, however, this rule has been broken. In March, for example, weekly magazine Shukan Shincho published the name of the leader of the trio who killed the teen in Kawasaki.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations issued a statement saying it was “deplorable” that his name was printed, adding that it could affect the boy’s rehabilitation and integration back into society.
Takahashi, an executive member of the National Association of Crime Victims and Surviving Families, believes the names should be revealed in cases where the crimes committed are serious. He believes harsh penalties are needed in order for the minors to understand the gravity of the crimes they committed.
“We believe there is no difference between a crime committed by an adult and that of a minor,” Takahashi says. “The damage caused is the same. There is no way these minors can be reformed without reflecting on the seriousness of the crimes they committed.”
Decline in crime
Most of the population appears to agree. Several recent media polls show that more than 80 percent support lowering the age of majority from 20 to 18, at which point a teen could be formally charged with any crime. What’s more, a recent poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun shows that 80 percent support tougher penalties for juvenile offenders.
Furthermore, a government survey released in 2011 shows that 75.6 percent believe juvenile crime is on the rise. In fact, the opposite is true.
A 2014 white paper on crime shows that the number of arrests of minors has been dropping steadily for a decade from 203,684 in 2003 to 90,413 in 2013. The number of homicide cases involving minors was 96 in 2003, which dropped to 55 cases 10 years later.
Setsuko Tsuboi, a lawyer and an expert on juvenile crime, expresses alarm over the public’s unforgiving view toward young offenders. As someone who has represented many minors, she says they all come from broken homes and abusive environments — in some cases, very severe.
“Juvenile offenders have often been abandoned by their families and society, and they don’t care about consequences,” Tsuboi says.
“These minors don’t care about other people, including themselves,” she says. “They are prepared to die and are not afraid to take the lives of others. There is no way that imposing harsher penalties (on these teens) would prevent them from committing a crime.”
Tsuboi, who also heads the Carillon Children’s Center, which runs shelters for troubled teens, recalls a case in which a minor killed another boy. After the teen was arrested, he remained unresponsive and offered no explanation or apology for his actions. Tsuboi then went to visit the victim’s family, where she witnessed the overwhelming despair and agony of losing a child.
“These are his brand new sneakers that his older brother got him for his birthday,” Tsuboi recalls his mother saying during her visit. “My son will never be able to wear them now.”
The lawyer then visited the offender and told him about her visit. All of a sudden, the youth’s eyes started to widen and, as if he finally understood the gravity of the crime he committed, he broke down and cried, saying he wished he could turn back the clock and die instead of killing the boy.
“No child is born bad. Children are not cold-blooded beings from the outset,” Tsuboi says. “Seeking an eye-for-an-eye revenge on these minors will only destroy the fabric of our society.”
Sympathy vs. empathy
The spirit of the Juvenile Law is not to punish minors but to educate them so that they can eventually be reintegrated into society.
Even in cases where the crimes are so serious that punishment is deemed necessary, sentencing for those who are 17 and younger is automatically reduced. The death sentence, for example, becomes life imprisonment and life behind bars becomes up to 20 years imprisonment. Legally, Japan can, and has, sentenced minors aged 18 or 19 to death.
Takahashi believes the death penalty should be handed down to killers of all ages.
“We believe the death penalty should be applied to minors and adults,” Takahashi says. “The victims’ families need a sense of closure and it is the only way they can move forward. Nothing can bring back the victim, so the murderer should atone for his crime with his or her life.”
In the United States, meanwhile, the Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty for offenders aged younger than 18 is a cruel punishment that violates the U.S. Constitution. In handing down the decision, it cites scientific and sociological research that proves minors are immature, have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility and are vulnerable.
Hiroko Goto, a professor at Chiba University and an expert on Juvenile Law, says a minor’s immaturity means his or her decision-making ability is flawed. She says the focus should not be on revising the law to apply harsher penalties on offenders but on the social environment that caused the juveniles to commit crimes in the first place.
“Children are different from adults but it seems as if people want to punish them the same way,” Goto says. “The law holds everyone — society, families, adults and the media — responsible for creating an environment where young minors commit such crimes. Everyone appears oblivious of this and just wants to blame the child.”
In almost all cases, Goto says, minors do not commit a violent crime out of the blue. They go through a period of abuse, become delinquent and often start committing minor misdemeanors before they ultimately end up harming someone.
“These minors were victims before becoming offenders,” Goto says. “There is so much that goes on leading up to the crime, but people only see the end result and condemn the minor for it.”
Sympathy goes a long way to explaining why the general public gets so enraged about juvenile crime, especially where murder is involved.
It tends to sympathize with the victims’ families, knowing that the killer was a minor who would eventually be freed because of his age.
Goto says a victim’s pain is only something that they can comprehend and it is natural for him or her to seek harsher punishment.
However, she says, this does not mean that the general public can do the same — they are part of the society that has created these juvenile offenders.
“Sympathy and empathy are two different things. By sympathizing, the general public is trying to identify itself with the victims,” Goto says. “The government and society, however, are responsible for both sides because we created an environment that turned them into victims and offenders.”
It has been more than 19 years since Take’s son was killed. Her two younger children have now become adults, both experiencing severe emotional trauma as a result of the loss. At 60, Take has recently become a grandmother and every time she sees her grandchild, she is hit with the painful memory of how she had brought her first son into the world more than 30 years ago.
“We’ve been through hell and have been fighting for the past 19 years,” Take says. “It is still painful. This is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Three years after the family court ruling, she filed for damages in the civil court against the minor and his parents and it was only then that she was given access to the written testimonies and documents related to her son’s case. The court ordered the boy and his family to pay ¥80 million in damages, money she used to set up a fund in her son’s name, Takakazu, to support other victims of juvenile crime.
Every month since then, ¥70,000 has been paid into an account she opened to receive the compensation. That is the only connection Take has with the offender — she has no idea where he is or what he is doing.
“I hope by making the payment once a month he remembers what he did — he took a person’s life,” Take says. “There is no way I can ever forgive him, and I don’t want him to ever forget.”
Part one of a two-part series on juvenile crime. Join us next week for a more personal look at the rehabilitation of young offenders in a correctional facility.
High-profile juvenile crime cases over the past two decades
Kobe murders (1997)
A 14-year-old boy in the city of Suma, Kobe, murders 10-year-old Ayaka Yamashita and 11-year-old Jun Hase in 1997. Hase’s severed head is found in front of the school gate with a note, written in red pen, stuffed in his mouth, identifying the killer as “Sakakibara.” The Weekly Bunshun reports that the note read: “This is the beginning of the game. … Try to stop me if you can you stupid police. … I desperately want to see people die.” Later, a letter is sent to Kobe Shimbun, in which Sakakibara claims responsibility for the murder, and threatens that more deaths will follow. The perpetrator is arrested in June in connection with the Hase slaying, and later confesses to both murders.
Hikari murders (1999)
An 18-year-old kills and rapes 23-year-old Yayoi Motomura before also killing her 11-month-old daughter, Yuka, in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in 1999. The offender is sentenced to death over the crime in 2008, which is finalized by the Supreme Court in 2012.
Nishitetsu bus hijacking (2000)
A bus is hijacked in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, by a 17-year-old boy with a kitchen knife, who posted a threat on 2channel under the name “Neo Mugicha” (“Neo Barley Tea”). One passenger is stabbed to death, and two are injured. According to reports, the suspect told police he heard someone else’s voice in his head. In court, the teen says he has been bullied at school.
Sasebo slashing (2004)
An 11-year-old schoolgirl attending a public elementary school in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, murders her 12-year-old classmate, Satomi Mitarai, with a utility knife in an empty classroom during lunch. The teen claims Mitarai made disparaging remarks about her weight on an online bulletin board.
Nagoya ax murder (2014)
A 19-year-old murders 77-year-old Tomoko Mori with an ax in the student’s apartment in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture. The student tells police she had “wanted to kill someone since childhood.” On May 15, she is rearrested after being accused of poisoning a classmate with thallium during high school.
Kawasaki killing (2015)
Three teenagers are charged over the fatal stabbing of Ryota Uemura near the Tama River in Kawasaki in February. Police quotes the 18-year-old ringleader of the trio as saying he was upset because the 13-year-old had told his friends about an earlier beating he suffered a month prior to his death.
Yokohama murders (2015)
A 15-year-old boy in Yokohama is arrested on suspicion of killing his mother and grandmother with a knife on May 18. The teen claims he stabbed his relatives in a fit of rage after he was warned about school and studies.