More than a month after its publication, public outrage over “Zekka,” a controversial memoir published by a serial killer who targeted children when he was a minor, has shown no sign of abating.
The audacious autobiography, in which Seito Sakakibara recounts in grisly detail the murders he committed as a troubled teenager in Kobe in 1997, has left many people wondering what he plans to do with the proceeds.
With that question came growing calls for Japan to introduce legislation similar to so-called Son of Sam laws in the United States, which take their name from the moniker given to American serial killer David Berkowitz.
In fact, in an apparent reflection of the public repulsion toward the book, an online poll conducted by Yahoo after its release in June showed that 90.8 percent of respondents answered they would accept such a law.
The following is a look at the U.S. legislation and whether Japan could or should pursue similar laws:
What is the nature of the law?
Son of Sam laws refer to legislation intended to prevent criminals and ex-convicts from profiting from the publicity of their crimes. About 40 U.S. states have enacted such legislation.
The law typically works by allowing a state to retain and save in an account the proceeds from a criminal’s expressive work, including books and movies, so the money can later be distributed to victims at their request.
Have the laws invited controversy?
Yes. The initial law was enacted by the state of New York in 1977 with the goal of preventing the unacceptable scenario of criminals banking on the notoriety of their heinous crimes at the expense of their victims. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that law, deeming it unconstitutional. It was later modified.
The top court ruled in 1991 that the New York law was “inconsistent” with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it “imposed a financial burden on speakers because of the content of their speech.”
Implicit in the Supreme Court judgment was the idea that cracking down on works with a specified content — or in this case, criminals’ memoirs — would run counter to the principle of free speech and have a chilling effect on democracy, lawyer Takeru Ito analyzed.
The court also determined the law could restrict free speech too broadly. The law was so “significantly overinclusive,” the court said, that it could technically apply to works that discuss an author’s crime even “tangentially” or “incidentally.” It also didn’t matter whether the author was actually accused or convicted.
Using this logic, works by prominent, ex-incarcerated civil rights activists, including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, could be subject to the statute, the court pointed out.
The ruling eventually caused New York and other states to rewrite their own Son of Sam laws to avoid inviting similar decisions by the top court.
Why has “Zekka” triggered calls for such a law in Japan?
Although Sakakibara is by no means the first criminal to publish an autobiography in Japan, the 32-year-old has found himself the target of perhaps the biggest public backlash ever, experts say.
Criminals who published memoirs include Tatsuya Ichihashi, who raped and murdered 22-year-old British teacher Lindsay Hawker in Chiba Prefecture in 2007, and Tomohiro Kato, who killed seven strangers in a stabbing and vehicular rampage on a street of Akihabara, Tokyo, in 2008.
But unlike these offenders, Sakakibara, who was at the time of the murder 14 years old, remains to date identified only by his nickname and has undergone no criminal penalties under the protection of the juvenile law.
This, coupled with the fact that he didn’t bother to notify his victims’ families of the book’s publication in advance, likely sparked an unprecedented level of public animosity against the memoir and his possible financial gain from it, lawyer Ito said.
Ota Publishing Co., which published “Zekka,” told The Japan Times that Sakakibara believes he has “no other alternatives but” to use the proceeds to compensate the victims’ families because he remains saddled with nearly ¥200 million in unpaid damages awarded to them.
Are there any measures in place in Japan to keep criminals from profiting from the publicity of their crimes?
Yes, there are laws banning criminals from profiting from their crimes, but the statutes are only applied to organized or drug-related crimes.
General crime victims can sue accused offenders for damages in civil litigation outside of criminal trial proceedings. If the lawsuit succeeds, victims can demand that the judiciary confiscate the offenders’ assets, including savings, salaries and, indeed, royalties from their expressive works, in order to collect compensation designated by a court.
In a related development, the government, as part of efforts to empower victims, established a system in 2008 that purported to spare victims the hassle being involved in initiating a damages lawsuit and collecting evidence. But the system, lawyer Masatami Otsuka pointed out, tends to be disregarded by judges and unfortunately remains underutilized.
If those options exist, is there any merit in introducing a Son of Sam law?
Tokyo-based lawyer Hiroaki Hoshino, for one, believes a Son of Sam law in Japan would help victims, including next of kin, acquire criminals’ royalties much faster and more easily than they can at present.
Under the current system, it typically takes victims two to three years to file and complete a damages suit, Hoshino said, adding there is additional legal rigmarole involved before victims can finally be compensated.
“For example, the Japanese version of the law can be implemented in such a way that you can skip the normal procedure for a damages suit after filing an initial complaint, and just wait until authorities take away royalties from offenders and hand them over to you later,” Hoshino said.
What challenges would Japan have to overcome to introduce such a law?
Given the law doesn’t go so far as to ban the publicity of a criminal’s work, experts agree by and large that the concept of the law would be deemed constitutional in Japan. But its actual implementation, they warn, is a different matter.
For example, Hoshino said, constitutional questions might be raised if the law is crafted in such a way that it can take away a criminal’s proceeds indefinitely. Setting no limit on the amount of proceeds that can be confiscated from criminals, he said, will risk infringing on the offenders’ intrinsic rights to own property.
Noting the 1991 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that slammed the initial New York law as overinclusive, lawyer Ito said the law should be applied only to works such as “Zekka,” whose primary purpose is to recount the killer’s crimes.
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