National / Crime & Legal

Child serial killer’s memoir a hot seller, hot potato

Kyodo

A memoir detailing the macabre accounts of a 1997 juvenile serial killer is stirring controversy, but not only for its stomach-turning subject matter.

“Zekka,” which was published without relatives of the victims being notified in advance, has climbed up the best-seller list.

Seito Sakakibara, who is now 32 and whose real name has not been revealed, killed two children and wounded three others in 1997 in Suma Ward, Kobe, when he was 14.

The incidents shocked the nation because of their brutality. Infamously, Sakakibara left the decapitated head of 11-year-old Jun Hase on the front gate of a junior school with a defiant note stuffed in the victim’s mouth.

Some booksellers have refrained from stocking the memoir out of respect for the victims’ next of kin and to avoid a public backlash from people outraged that the book, which went on sale June 11, was published by Ota Publishing Co. in the first place.

It would appear to present a golden opportunity for discourse about juvenile crimes and rehabilitation, but the substance of the argument — whether meaningful discussion of the writer’s true intent is possible — is a long way from being resolved.

Despite the brisk sales that placed the book at No. 1 in its first week, the comment section on Amazon Japan’s website reads like a veritable charge sheet in dissuading people from buying it.

“Don’t buy this. If you buy it, you’ll only hurt the families more,” says one comment about “Zekka,” a coined term loosely translated as desperate song. “I’d like to see the faces of the people who bought this book,” reads another.

One comment, presumably from someone who has read all or parts of the book, berates the writer: “I suppose he is writing with a sense that he is calmly analyzing himself, but his narcissism and strong desire to be in the limelight gushes from between the book’s lines. It seems that he probably felt the same kind of rapture when he committed the crimes as when he was writing about them.”

Many bookstores are heeding these voices. One large bookstore chain with around 100 shops nationwide will not stock “Zekka” “in consideration of the feelings of the bereaved families.”

Kikuya Tosho Hanbai, a book wholesaler based in Kobe, has removed the memoir from the shelves of its bookshops in 15 prefectures, including Hokkaido, Kyoto and Osaka.

And Fusaho Izumi, mayor of Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, has been calling on bookstores throughout his city to consider not stocking it for the same reasons.

But other bookstores plan to continue selling it. “There is something wrong with the trend of the times that says ‘stop publishing whenever there’s something that comes up,’ ” said a Tokyo bookstore manager in his 40s.

“(The author) is more human than I thought he would be,” said one man in his 30s after grabbing the book off a shelf at a large bookstore in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

In the book, Sakakibara admits to having had deranged sexual fantasies, saying that he committed an act “far more heinous than murder” in the locked bathroom of his home after carrying the boy’s severed head back from a nearby mountain.

Indeed, as a result of the atrocities committed by Sakakibara the age for legally prosecuting juveniles was eventually lowered from 16 to 14.

Sakakibara gained parole from a medical reformatory for juveniles in 2004 and was released back into society a year later.

In the memoir, he recounts not only the “ecstasy” he felt when he committed the crimes but describes his life as a day laborer after his release and how he would avoid relationships with others.

Ota Publishing Co., whose 1993 release of “The Complete Manual of Suicide” became a million-book seller, mainly among teenagers and those in their 20s, received Sakakibara’s manuscript in March.

The publisher stands by its decision to print the book without consulting the victims’ next of kin.

“There is hardly ever an account of the violator of a juvenile crime speaking out like this. This book was written to try to convey to a third person the compulsions this youth had when he committed the crimes. There might be criticism, but by conveying the facts I thought that presenting this problem would be meaningful,” said Ota Publishing President Satoshi Oka in explaining his reason for releasing the book.

“Zekka” sells for ¥1,500, excluding tax, and 100,000 copies were printed in the first edition. Based on the contract, the author would have been paid 10 percent of retail sales in royalties, or ¥15 million to date.

Although the man has expressed his desire to compensate the victims’ families from the royalties he receives, it is doubtful the families would consider such a gesture from a person they believe is seeking notoriety from the murder of their loved ones.

In the United States, the “Son of Sam” laws are designed to keep criminals from profiting from the publicity of their crimes, particularly by selling their stories to publishers.

Such laws often permit the state to seize money earned from deals, such as book or movie biographies and paid interviews, and use it to compensate the criminals’ victims. With the release of “Zekka,” Japanese are now calling for similar laws, which refer to the nickname given to serial killer David Berkowitz in the 1978 New York City murders.

Opinions from the book industry vary.

“It became a discussion of what we would do if our company had received (the same) manuscript. We would like to publish it if we could, but we probably would be too afraid to do so,” said one person in charge of nonfiction for a large book publisher.

A top executive for monthly magazine Bungei Shunju said his company would have tried to publish the book but approached the victims’ relatives first.

“It would be natural to make efforts to publish it, if we got the manuscript. But they should have tried to approach the families, even if they couldn’t get approval. They were too hasty. If they had done everything properly, I don’t think there would have been such a backlash.”

Hiroyuki Shinoda, who is editor-in-chief at Tsukuru, a publisher that often expresses the thoughts of violent criminals, agreed that the book should be published.

“I agree with its publication. Bookstores that sell it should also be supported,” he said.

“The publishing of this book should present an opportunity to broadly discuss the real nature of juvenile crimes and rehabilitation, so it is also part of the rehabilitation process. The problem is whether society accepts this graphic imagery or not. Most people want those who commit crimes to ‘live quietly off in the corner somewhere.’ So what I think is stirring the controversy is what people consider a clash with that image.”