National / Social Issues

Growing up in poverty and broken homes, Kawasaki youths find savior in rap

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Weathered signs from five years ago stand forlornly on a bank of the Tama River in Kawasaki, politely asking visitors to refrain from laying any more flowers of condolence so they don’t accidentally catch fire.

But the scene is otherwise absent of any reminder of the shocking incident that happened here five years ago.

Thursday marks the fifth anniversary of the high-profile slaying of 13-year-old Ryota Uemura, a Kawasaki schoolboy who was found dead — and naked — on the riverside after he was repeatedly forced by a gang of three local teens to swim on a freezing February night in 2015 and had his neck slashed with a box cutter, a detail that evoked in the minds of many the gruesome fate of journalist Kenji Goto, who had been murdered by the Islamic State just weeks earlier.

But residents in Kawasaki say Uemura was by no means the first youth to perish on the riverside, which has a reputation for being frequented by local juveniles up to no good who have engaged in bullying and roughhousing that has sometimes verged on life-threatening.

Even before Uemura’s slaying, “young people would die along Tama River regularly, if not every single year. I’ve seen deaths of the young occur there for quite some time now,” said Ken Suzuki, a 45-year-old staffer at the Kawasaki community center Fureaikan who has dedicated much of his career there to addressing the alienation of local young people.

“We must put a stop to this side of Kawasaki and move on to a new era,” Suzuki said.

Ken Suzuki | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Ken Suzuki | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

Five years since Uemura’s death captured headlines, observers say many young people in the southern part of Kawasaki, home to a relatively dense population of hard-scrabble and financially struggling families and migrant workers from abroad, still tend to have it rough, as poverty and race-based bullying pushes some toward delinquency.

At the same time, though, these same observers say change is taking place, if at a slower-than-ideal pace.

For them, a tenuous silver lining has emerged in the form of rap music after a hip-hop group of young Kawasaki natives achieved rock-star status with songs based on their own underprivileged childhoods, turning them into role models local teens now strive to emulate.

‘Uncontrollable’ juveniles?

Uemura’s killing reverberated throughout the nation in many ways.

Because the ringleader in the incident was a Filipino Japanese, the case highlighted anew the difficulties of fitting in for children with foreign backgrounds, even emboldening xenophobic rallies targeting Kawasaki itself.

It also gave ammunition to the assertion by conservative lawmakers that juvenile offenders must be punished more severely, and ignited debate within the Justice Ministry over whether to revise the juvenile law with a bigger emphasis on punishment, rather than the rehabilitation, of young offenders.

The city, too, saw its image stained, as the perpetrators’ apparent imitation of the Islamic State’s beheading inspired the viral internet slang phrase “Kawasaki State.”

Akira Suto, a clinical psychologist and Komazawa Women’s University professor, was asked by the ringleader’s defense team to assess the then-18-year-old boy’s upbringing, which was believed to have played a key role in the killing. As a result, Suto interviewed the teen, whose name has been withheld because he was a minor at the time of the incident, a total of nine times over the course of four months through December 2015.

The sessions coaxed a number of glimpses into the life of the mostly unsmiling and “extremely defensive” boy, shedding light on his fraught childhood.

Born in Japan to a Japanese father and a Filipino mother, the boy was taunted by his classmates around the age of 10, mainly for having a non-Japanese mother.

He was also habitually subject to corporal punishment by his parents, with his mother often relying on her fists to discipline him as a way of compensating for her inability to fluently scold him in Japanese, Suto said. As a junior high school student, he went through the traumatic humiliation of being persistently harassed and bullied by a gang of younger peers at school.

“His experience with physical punishment at home made him know firsthand the power of violence, which I think contributed to his tendency to use it as a means of conflict resolution,” Suto said.

Akira Suto | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Akira Suto | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

Meanwhile, the fact he was terrorized by those younger than him suggests he “failed to make it as a top-notch delinquent,” prompting him to overcompensate by “pulling rank on those he perceived as weaker than him,” he said.

The savagery of what he and others did instilled a notion in the public that juvenile offenders were fast spiraling out of control.

A Yomiuri Shimbun poll conducted in March 2015, for example, found that 83 percent supported the exclusion of 18- and 19-year-olds from the protection guaranteed under the juvenile law. Tomomi Inada, then-policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, even went so far as to reportedly declare that juvenile crimes were “growing more and more atrocious.”

The idea of “uncontrollable juveniles,” however, is belied by statistics that show the number of minors who violated criminal laws per 100,000 people has steadily declined over the years, standing at 269.6 in 2018 — the lowest in the last five decades — according to the Justice Ministry’s annual crime report.

“There is no question that what they did was brutal, but we can’t fully appreciate this case without taking into account the ringleader’s upbringing and relationship with other kids,” Suto said. “In that sense, the case was the most typical of juvenile crimes.”

Forced into marginalization

In Kawasaki’s south, a hub of factories and a linchpin of the Keihin industrial region, youth alienation is a deeply ingrained problem.

This part of Kawasaki originally developed after “people in need of jobs flowed in from across the nation,” Fureaikan staffer Suzuki said. It is “not uncommon at all,” he said, that families of these factory workers were forced to grapple with poverty, often ending up as single-parent households.

“To make matters worse, poverty often runs in a family, disadvantaging offspring after offspring. That’s what’s called a cycle of poverty,” he said.

Today, among the city’s seven wards, the number of households on welfare assistance was by far the largest in Kawasaki Ward — the biggest part of the city’s south — at 8,293, or about 35 percent of the total, as of January this year.

The situation is even more complicated for children with foreign backgrounds.

Kawasaki saw a spike in Filipino women coming to Japan to work in hostess bars on “entertainer” visas in the 1980s.

Over the years, Suzuki says he has seen many children in their midteens yanked away from their lives in the Philippines to join their mothers in Japan, only to fail to integrate and go off the rails due to language barriers. In Kawasaki, which has a strong yakuza presence, criminal organizations would often accommodate and then recruit these marginalized foreign teens, he said.

But just because a non-Japanese or biracial young person may have been born in Japan, it does not mean they are immune to delinquency. Some still gravitate toward Japanese peers from similarly impoverished, single-parent families, forming a gang with them, as the offenders in the Uemura case did, he said.

Today, with southern Kawasaki growing increasingly multicultural, “children with foreign backgrounds stand out much less than before, but even so, the problem of their isolation and lack of support is still there,” he said.

Yusaku Tanaka, 25, who grew up in the city’s southern Saiwai Ward, knows all about what poverty and the dysfunction of a family can do to young minds.

His father, he says, walked out on his family after a divorce when Tanaka was barely 10 years old. His mother, meanwhile, abandoned him several years later to leave for her boyfriend, forcing Tanaka, who was around 15 at the time, to briefly live on his own before he was taken in by his grandfather.

The disintegration of his family, he says, resulted in him spending a large part of his junior high school days in the company of drug dealers.

“If you had parents, I think they would naturally try to guide you away from bad stuff, but neither was there for me when I was led astray,” he said.

Silver lining

For youths like Tanaka, it is rap music that has increasingly provided something of an emotional foothold.

Kawasaki is home to Bad Hop, a hugely popular hip-hop group that has shot to fame with its members’ candid depiction of their harsh upbringings in southern Kawasaki. A chilling line from one of their songs, “Kawasaki Drift,” the video for which has over 11 million views on YouTube, says: “If you want to become famous in Kawasaki Ward, you either kill someone or become a rapper.”

Tanaka himself took up the genre at around age 20, organizing a gathering of rappers known as a “cypher” for youths from various backgrounds, including those in situations similar to his. Many, he said, were avid fans of Bad Hop. The weekly event in front of Kawasaki Station continued until he had to relocate out of the city last year.

“Hip hop is about singing about what you actually experienced, rather than what you fantasize about, so it allowed me to vent about my childhood,” he said. “Rap saved me a great deal.”

But the extent to which rap music can be a savior for troubled youth remains unclear, according to Ryo Isobe, a freelance writer who began his career as a music columnist before extensively covering the culture surrounding troubled youths in Kawasaki.

“Rap music is authentic if sung by people who actually experienced violence and gang fights, but it sometimes goes the other way, with kids seeking to experience violence first so they can become ‘authentic’ rappers,” he said, conceding that hip-hop music could be a gateway to delinquency.

Ryo Isobe | SATOKO KAWASAKI
Ryo Isobe | SATOKO KAWASAKI

In fact, a darker side of Kawasaki youths’ fascination with rap music seemingly came to a head in December, when a 16-year-old high school boy in Saiwai Ward reportedly died after diving off a bridge into the Tama River as part of a “penalty” for finishing last in a rap battle he was having with a group of friends.

The incident, Isobe said, was a sobering reminder of how, five years after Uemura’s death, the Tama River area in the city remains a hotbed of problems and “the situation surrounding Kawasaki youths hasn’t changed very much.”

“I was lucky enough to flee Kawasaki,” says Tanaka, who now works as a painting contractor in the northern part of the Kanto region. “It’s a very closed community, where delinquents live in an extremely tight network of human relationships” — so much so, he said, that “even if you mess up something and want to run away, you never can.”

But for some youngsters in southern Kawasaki, it’s precisely this tight-knit community that appeals to them.

A group of former junior high school classmates in Saiwai Ward’s Minamikase neighborhood still regularly hang out and remain in touch by using an app that enables them to check out their friends’ whereabouts in real time.

“I’ve never really thought about leaving the town. I’m comfortable here,” one of them, 20-year-old construction worker Jin Karino, said. “It’s only bad stuff that makes it to the news, so that’s probably why people have a negative image of Kawasaki.

“But I find people here friendly. When I went to a bar the other day, some old guy I met for the first time bought me a drink. That’s how neighborly our town is.”

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