‘June 28, 1997. I ceased being me. It was the day I was expelled forever from the world of sunshine. Up to then, I had nonchalantly spent my days unaltruistically, each passing day framed by the next as in a film, until the day when, suddenly, I began to be stigmatized as an enigmatic being.
“‘Shonen A’ (‘Youth A’) became my substitute name.”
Above are the opening lines in the first chapter (“The Day I Lost my Name”) in “Zekka” (which can be roughly translated as “Song of Desperation”), a 294-page autobiographical memoir by the pseudonymous Youth A. The text is preceded by an old color photograph of him on his fourth birthday, sitting on the lap of his grandmother. Neither is smiling.
Two months after bludgeoning a 10-year-old girl to death in March 1997, Youth A murdered an 11-year-old boy, removed his head with a hacksaw and placed it at the gate of the Tomogaoka Middle School in Kobe’s Suma Ward. Shoved into the dead boy’s mouth was a handwritten message: “Now the game begins.” It was a challenge to the police, and more threatening letters were sent to the Kobe Shimbun, penned by a person calling himself “Seito Sakakibara.”
While fear stalked the nation, experts engaged in wild speculation that fed the media frenzy. Some pointed to similarities with the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer who terrorized Northern California for several years from the late 1960s (and who was never apprehended).
When police on June 28 announced the arrest of the suspect — a 14-year-old middle school student — the public reacted with relief mixed with horror.
In keeping with Japan’s practice of rehabilitating juvenile offenders, Youth A’s name and face were never officially made public. Now 32 years old, he’s believed to be living in the Kansai area and working on and off in the construction trade.
Still, he’s not entirely anonymous. Insisting the public’s right to know outweighed the established covenant between law enforcement and the media, Shinchosha’s now-defunct photo news magazine Focus ran Youth A’s photo in its issue of July 9, 1997, stirring considerable debate. Shukan Shincho (July 2), another Shinchosha weekly, ran the photo again.
The magazines and tabloids have jumped on the publication of “Zekka” like a proverbial ton of bricks, with coverage ranging from mostly negative to outright hostile. But attesting to Oscar Wilde’s cynical adage that goes, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” “Zekka” went from a first print run of 100,000 copies to a second printing of 50,000 in just three weeks — even though many bookstores only dispense it from under the counter.
In normal circumstances, author royalties from the first print run alone would be estimated at around ¥10 million.
Noting that the “Son of Sam” law (so named after convicted serial David Berkowitz) enacted in New York state requires that victims of crimes be notified whenever a person convicted of a crime receives $10,000 or more, Takarajima (August) wonders if it’s time for Japan to adopt a similar statute to prevent criminals from profiting from their deeds.
At age 18, four years into his 6½-year incarceration at a medical facility for juveniles in the Tokyo suburb of Fuchu, Youth A had related to his therapist that he “wanted to become an author.” Apparently he’d been inspired by lectures delivered to inmates at the facility by author Tadaaki Mori, who writes books for the youth market and who recalled to Shukan Post (July 2) that his impression of the boy was not one of a “monster,” but rather that of an “empty shell.” More than seeking fame per se, Mori believes Youth A wrote “Zekka” out of a desire for “self revelation.”
“The impression he gave me at our meeting was that of a very bright person with a good memory,” Misa Ochiai, who edited the book for Ohta Publishing, tells Flash (June 30). “There was nothing scary about him at all.”
In line with her regular editorial procedures, Ochiai was careful to expunge any references in the book that might enable identification of its author.
Takarajima (August) asked why the location of Shonen A cannot be divulged.
“Because the shocking nature of his crime was unprecedented, a special section was set up within the Justice Ministry’s Kanto detention facility,” a person with ties to the Correction Bureau of the ministry is quoted as saying. “In what was the first of its kind, on an experimental basis, his incarceration was extended for two years. I won’t deny they’ve gone to extreme lengths to keep from divulging his identity.”
Now that Youth A’s a best-selling author, the chances that an ambitious reporter or photographer will eventually track him down are almost a certainty. Such exposure might very well cost him his job, which in turn could give him no alternative but to milk his notoriety for profit, as did another famous killer-turned-author, the flamboyant “celebrity cannibal” Issei Sagawa. While a student in Paris in 1981, Sagawa murdered a Dutch woman and ate part of her corpse. After being allowed to return to Japan “for treatment,” Sagawa was never committed, and instead spent much of the 1980s and ’90s reveling in his sordid reputation in the print media and on television.
Sunday Mainichi (July 5), which denounced “Zekka” as a “huge deception,” tracked down Sagawa, now age 66 and in poor health.
“At the time my own book was published, I was also severely criticized,” Sagawa recalls. “I haven’t read ‘Zekka’ yet, so I can’t comment on its contents, but now more than 30 years (after my crime), and thinking about my victim and her family, I regret having published my book. I didn’t intend for it to go public, but was caught up in all the excitement; now I feel ashamed of it.
“At some point, Youth A should make his own name public and apologize to the victims’ families.”