Half a century since his arrest in 1969, and 22 years since his execution, Norio Nagayama, a repentant random killer who became a prolific writer behind bars, is still provoking debate on the issues surrounding capital punishment, poverty and children’s rights.

The most concrete legacy left by Nagayama, who was just 19 when he carried out his four killings over several weeks, is a fund set up to donate the royalties from his books to poor children in Peru, with the hope that none will follow his path from a broken family and crushing poverty to crime.

But events held by the Nagayama Children Fund around the anniversary each year of his execution on Aug. 1, 1997, to raise money for Peruvian children have also become a forum for discussing how society should treat juvenile offenders, drawing lawyers, psychiatrists and others involved in the debate.

According to the Tokyo Bar Association, which recently bestowed a human rights award on the fund, it has, through its activities, “raised issues concerning how the judiciary should face juvenile crimes and if the death penalty should be maintained,” given the circumstances of Nagayama’s case.

Born into an extremely poor family in a rural northeastern town, Nagayama was abandoned by his mother at age 5 and had to overcome both an abusive brother and the death of his gambling-addict father, whose life ended in destitution.

In 1965, Nagayama moved to Tokyo at a time when Japan was experiencing an era of high economic growth. His killings took place between mid-October and early November 1968, with Nagayama robbing his last two victims of money. When he was arrested the following year, he was 19 and thus considered a minor under Japanese law.

Initially given the death penalty, the Tokyo High Court commuted his sentence to a life term, arguing the government had failed to rescue him from his deprived surroundings and that it would be “unfair to ignore the lack of proper welfare policies and lay all the responsibilities on the defendant.”

The Supreme Court, however, finalized his death sentence in 1990.

At the fund’s event this year in Tokyo in late July, which drew some 200 people, the guest speaker was Tadaari Katayama, who lost his 8-year-old son in a traffic accident in 1997.

“We have rather taken the side of the perpetrator, while Mr. Katayama has worked on the side of victims,” said Kyoko Otani, Nagayama’s former defense lawyer, who also heads the fund. “I wanted his participation in our event to promote mutual understanding, so each of us could expand the capacities of our activities.”

A believer in the need to rehabilitate criminals rather than punish them, Katayama visits prisons and juvenile reformatories across Japan to talk with inmates in his capacity as one who was lost a family member.

“(Criminals) should have opportunities to feel someone’s pain, and they should be imprisoned only if they must be isolated in the process of their rehabilitation,” he said at the event.

“I have been involved in educational programs at detention facilities, with expectations that the inmates will be able to become happy,” he said. “It will make me happy, too, if they could lead happy lives.”

Katayama received the human rights award from the bar association together with the children’s fund, and the lawyer’s group praised his effort to promote “restorative justice,” which aims to rehabilitate criminals and bring closure to victims through dialogue between them as well as with communities.

Those he meets at juvenile reformatories are often the less fortunate, just like Nagayama, he said, adding that he “wonders what society and the older people around them have done for them. … I think they must feel lonely.”

His disavowal of retribution in criminal justice also makes him a firm opponent of the death penalty.

“It should not be accepted that the power of the state can be used to forcibly take someone’s life. … We need to end the cycle of retribution,” Katayama said.

His stance on rehabilitation, however, particularly as someone representing victims, stands in contrast to growing voices calling for tougher punishment.

While more than two-thirds of all countries have abolished the death penalty, Japan has been reluctant to follow suit, partly because of high public support for it.

A 2014 opinion poll by the Cabinet Office showed only 9.7 percent think the death penalty “should be abolished” and 80.3 percent think its existence “cannot be helped.”

The latest executions came this month, bringing the total since 2012 to 38.

Some proponents of abolishing capital punishment have suggested replacing it with a life sentence without parole, but Katayama sees this as conflicting with rehabilitation.

Introducing a punishment “that does not allow convicts to look toward the future” makes no sense, he said.

Encouraged by his comments, Otani told the audience she felt a renewed conviction that “a person can change.”

Meanwhile, in Peru, her former client Nagayama, “lives on,” she said, through the fund’s work donating royalties from his books, including his best-selling autobiography “Tears of Ignorance” and an award-winning novel. It is believed Nagayama was inspired to request his royalties be given to Peruvian kids by a newspaper story about child workers in the country shortly before his execution at age 48.

The total the group has generated for a scholarship fund has exceeded ¥22 million, including that raised by the charity events, which the fund has held since 2004.

Some of the recipients sent messages on the occasion of the latest event, where a documentary about Peruvian child laborers was shown. Annie Olivares, a 20-year-old college student in Lima, said she used the money to achieve her goal of becoming an English teacher.

“I’m deeply thankful to the donors, who are confident that I will be able to meet their expectations,” she said. “I promise I will return what I have received by providing support to others in the future.”

Jesus Fernandez, another 20-year-old Lima resident, said the scholarship had allowed him to resume his engineering studies at college, which he once had to suspend due to economic hardship. “I hope the donors will continue providing economic and psychological supports to generations to come,” he said.

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