Grisly crimes alarming Japan
A series of killings in which the bodies were dismembered has unleashed a frenzy of self-examination.
By Bruce Wallace
TOKYO — It's not so much the news of a 17-year-old boy stabbing his mother to death that has shocked Japan, dominating chatter on tabloid TV for the last two weeks and sending shudders through a nation that prides itself on a low homicide rate.
The greater horror lies with what he did afterward. Having killed his mother as she slept, police say, the boy cut off her arm and head with a saw. Spray-painted her arm white and stuck it in a potted plant. Put her head in a sports bag and carried it with him to an Internet cafe, where he spent two hours watching rap music videos in a private booth.
He then took a taxi to a police station in his town in northern Japan, where he surrendered the head and told the officers, "It didn't matter who I killed."
Step by gruesome step, it's hard to imagine a more grisly crime.
Yet what unsettles many Japanese is that dismembering the body of a slaying victim, known here as barabara jiken or "scattered pieces incidents," no longer seems like such an aberration. Over the last several months, there has been a series of killings in which the bodies have been cut up or disposed of in sickening ways.
The disturbing crimes have unleashed a national frenzy of self-examination, with criminologists, politicians and anyone else with an opinion asking whether some macabre virus has infected contemporary Japanese society. It has given rise to suggestions that the killers were mimicking dismemberment scenes in best-selling novels and that the cause is the increasing divide between rich and poor in a society that once prided itself on egalitarianism.
These theories, based on little more than speculation but amplified by entranced media, have contributed to a sense that a country once bound by tight family and community ties is splintering into something alien.
"These recent murders are about self-validation: people murdering someone in order to fulfill an 'empty self,' " said Jinsuke Kageyama, a criminal psychologist. "The murderers recover their lost power by killing."
The recent savagery began in December, when a Tokyo woman confessed to killing her allegedly adulterous husband with a blow from a wine bottle and then cutting his body into pieces. The parts were found scattered across two city wards; his head was buried in a suburban park.
Less than a month later, a 21-year-old Tokyo man was accused of killing his younger sister. He claimed he lashed out violently after she belittled him for his failure to win acceptance to dental school. Police said he hacked her body into pieces and stuffed the parts into four garbage bags.
In March, the strangled body of a young, female English-language teacher from Britain was discovered buried in a sand-filled bathtub in a university student's Tokyo apartment. The suspect eluded a police raid and is still on the run.
The incident occurred around the time a verdict was reached in the trial of another Japanese man in the slaying of Lucie Blackman. The British woman, who was working as a Tokyo bar hostess, disappeared in July 2000. Authorities found her remains in 2001. The body had been dismembered and the head encased in concrete. Judges acquitted real estate developer Joji Obara in her death and dismemberment, saying there was no physical evidence linking him to Blackman's body.
And these aren't the only stories dominating media coverage. They have been accompanied by what seems to some a deluge of shocking crimes, from the random stabbing of a 2-year-old child by a woman in a Yokohama shopping mall, to a couple accused of dumping their toddler son's body on a mountainside after he suffocated in the helmet compartment of their motorcycle.
The recent mayhem in a country with a low homicide rate, which has been falling, has commentators scrambling for explanations. Some criminologists argue that socially dysfunctional students go unnoticed in a school system in which docility and acute shyness are regarded as normal.
Others see a copycat syndrome, pointing to novels such as the 1998 bestseller "Out," in which a wife kills her abusive husband and then conscripts three female co-workers to help dismember the body for easier disposal.
Corporate restructuring that ended the jobs-for-life era also has been cited as a possible cause. So too the tunnel vision produced by playing violent video games. Some ruling party politicians said the burst of gore underscored the legitimacy of their campaign to restore what they say are lost Japanese values: love of family and love of country.
"We are witnessing the deterioration of Japanese society," lawmaker Tsuneo Suzuki told parliament. "We must stem this appalling destruction of family and community morals."
Yet the record shows that dismembering bodies is neither unique to Japan nor a newly arrived phenomenon. Dismemberment took place in the Edo period (1603-1868), said Mark Schreiber, an American who is a longtime resident of Japan and the author of two books on the history of sensational crime in the country. He said random slashings of innocent passersby occurred regularly during the Showa era (1926-89) and that the Taisho period (1912-26) had its record of sadistic, gory crimes.
Even the national tabloid-induced panic is nothing new. Ten years ago, a 14-year-old killer deposited the severed head of an 11-year-old child at the gates of an elementary school in Kobe, and taunted police and citizens with threats to kill again before he was finally caught.
Nor is dismemberment unknown outside Japan. The savage 1947 slaying of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles, the Black Dahlia case, remains one of America's most infamous, and both Canada and Britain were scandalized by multiple dismemberment killings in the 1990s.
The conflict in the Middle East also has produced a numbing abundance of political and religiously inspired beheadings, many recorded and available for viewing on the Internet.
"There's a lot of mindless mayhem out there all over the world, and I don't know what you can really read into it," Schreiber said. "People are just freaking out. And they are using whatever they can get their hands on that's lethal."
Individual motives in the recent Japanese killings vary widely. The British teacher appears to have been stalked and her killer was trying to hide the evidence of his crime. The 17-year-old who killed his mother allegedly claimed any victim would do, and made no attempt to evade capture. The Tokyo wife told police that her husband was abusing her; she cut up his body, the media reported, because she simply couldn't physically dispose of him all at once.
Even if culture was the cause, the fault may not rest solely with Japan. Violence and sadism are not unique to this nation: American pop culture, from Bret Easton Ellis to "The Sopranos," also includes scenes of dismemberment.
"Sure you have Japanese kids who pour themselves into the fantasies of their computers," said Jimmy Sakoda, 71, a former Los Angeles Police Department homicide investigator who had close ties to Japanese police during his career. "But because of the Internet, these kids are just as likely to be influenced by American movies or rap lyrics as by homegrown stuff."
That's why many observers are reluctant to lay blame for such extreme cases on Japan's social ills.
"When someone dismembers a body, that's total hatred," Sakoda said. "That's when killing's not enough. It's hate beyond reason."
Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.