National / Media | DARK SIDE OF THE RISING SUN

Rethinking the media's coverage of 'theatrical crime' in Japan

by Jake Adelstein

Contributing Writer

Ten minutes after midnight on Jan. 1, Kazuhiro Kusakabe drove a rental car into pedestrians on Harajuku’s famed Takeshita-dori, injuring nine people.

The 21-year-old college student drove around 140 meters the wrong way on the one-way street before crashing into a building, forcing him to flee the scene on foot. Police officers found Kusakabe in a nearby park, took him in for questioning and then later arrested him on charges of attempted murder.

Fortunately, no one died in the attack.

Kusakabe purportedly told investigators he had driven from Osaka and intended to kill the people he struck. He had only gotten his driver’s license a month before the attack.

The vehicle contained a 20-liter tank of kerosene and a high-pressure washing device. Kusakabe told investigators he had intended to die in a fiery crash near Meiji Shrine after spraying visitors with the liquid in the hope that they would also be set on fire.

Kusakabe has reportedly told investigators that he planned the crime as “revenge for Japan’s death penalty system,” but much of what he has said didn’t make sense. NHK said he is undergoing psychiatric evaluation to determine whether or not he is fit to stand trial.

The incident was reminiscent of Tomohiro Kato’s attack in Akihabara in June 2008, when he drove his vehicle into a crowd before going on a stabbing spree that left seven people dead and 10 injured.

More recently, 22-year-old Ichiro Kojima killed a 38-year-old man on the Tokaido Shinkansen last June during a stabbing rampage. He told investigators he wanted to spend the rest of his life in prison.

And on Jan. 24, 22-year-old Masaki Maeda attacked a police officer with a hammer and knife at a police box in the city of Toyama. According to wire reports, the student told investigators he wanted to steal the officer’s gun and commit suicide. In order to kill himself, it appears he was willing to kill others.

The crimes above were all carried out by young people wishing to be put behind bars, commit suicide or die in the act of committing a crime.

Criminologists typically call such cases “theatrical crimes,” or incidents in which a suspect commits a crime in a public space to generate as much attention as possible.

Yuji Yoshikawa, a former detective at the Metropolitan Police Department who specializes in juvenile crime and now works as a crime prevention consultant, believes the growth of social media has encouraged more young people to commit theatrical crimes.

“A new breed of discontented youth, often men in their early 20s, has emerged in step with social media,” Yoshikawa said during an interview last year. “In everyday life, these men are often withdrawn and have suicidal impulses. They’re either attracted by the idea of committing suicide in a blaze of glory and mayhem, or they may simply crave attention. The idea that subsequent reports on their crimes would spread feeds this fantasy.”

Milling around the crime scene on Takeshita-dori with a throng of reporters earlier this year, I thought back to what Yoshikawa had said.

By reporting heavily on such theatrical crimes, media organizations are perhaps part of the problem. They provide a platform for attention-seeking criminals to gain notoriety and also unwittingly assist in carrying out the desired action.

Is there a better way to report on theatrical crimes without ultimately inspiring another incident at a later date? The price of admission to the show is presently too high.

By making sure to examine the individual circumstances behind such crimes in subsequent reports, it may be possible to help prevent them in the future instead of unintentionally calling for an encore.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.