Family members were responsible for more than half of all murders in Japan in 2016. Image: iStock
Family members were responsible for more than half of all murders in Japan in 2016. Image: iStock

Last Thursday evening a 15-year-old boy in Japan’s Saitama Prefecture went on a stabbing spree that left his grandfather dead and his grandmother clinging to life. The focus of considerable media interest, the case has horrified and baffled many who knew the boy and the family.

When pressed for a motive, the teenager told Saitama police: “I planned to kill an unforgivable classmate of my mine. I wanted to spare my family the pain and shame by killing them all first…then killing him.”

An implausible story? That may depend upon your cultural prism.

A veteran Japanese detective and criminologist studying the case believes that the boy meant exactly what he said – though he conceded that from a Western cultural perspective, that might be difficult to believe.

And the minor’s case exemplifies another trend in Japanese criminology: The growing number of murders among family members, which now account for 55% of all homicides nationwide.

Four knives for five victims

According to reports in the Japanese press, and from sources close to the investigation, the boy, a third-year student in Junior High School, lived with his parents in Saitama’s Wakoshi City, where his grandparents also live. His name is being withheld as required in Japanese law.

He attended a private school in the area and was close to his grandparents, visiting them frequently. His grandfather was well-known as an amateur painter, and led a small group of local artists who would hold a yearly exhibition in Tokyo.

The boy had no known problems at school, although was considered to be a loner. He belonged to the school Science Club and was very adept at computing. He appeared to be doing well academically. School officials were unaware of any issues.

All that changed on the evening of October 18. He came back from school around 6pm and visited his grandparents in their condominium. While still wearing his school uniform, he assaulted his 87-year-old grandfather with 10 or more slashes to the upper body and deep stabs to the abdomen, some of which punctured internal organs. He also slashed his 82-year-old-grandmother in the neck, but when she asked to be allowed to use the toilet before she died, he let her do so. From the bathroom, the grandmother called his mother at 6.50pm, leaving a voicemail on her phone begging her to come home immediately.

The boy then left his grandparents in a pool of blood and made his escape. He changed clothes and dumped his blood-stained school uniform nearby. At 7.25pm, his mother arrived at the home, found the bodies and called for help. The grandfather died of shock caused by loss of blood. The grandmother survived.

The perpetrator was arrested the next morning at 9.50am near Kawagoe Station, 20 kilometers from the scene. He had a butcher’s knife and three more knives in his bag; one was still stained with blood. When questioned by the police, he admitted to stabbing both grandparents with intent to kill them. He was arrested on charges of attempted murder of his grandmother. He reportedly told the police: “There’s no mistake. I did it by myself.”

The boy is likely to be re-arrested at a later date for the murder of his grandfather. But he did not kill the classmate he was planning to murder and is unlikely to face any charges in regard to that part of his alleged plan.

Police do not believe that the motive for killing the grandparents was a grudge, but a twisted desire to spare them the shame of having a grandson who was a murderer. He was planning to kill all his family members before murdering the student who had been bullying him.

Better dead than red-faced?

“Sparing embarrassment” may seem like a bizarre motive for the murder of a person’s loved ones, but a retired police detective and criminologist believes the confession is valid. Taihei Ogawa told Asia Times that almost half of all murders in Japan take place between family members, and the desire to spare victims “from shame” is sometimes a factor.

“[This] is something that many Japanese people can understand, without difficulty. But for a foreigner, it’s hard. You probably can’t comprehend it,” Ogawa said. “What has been reported about the boy’s confession makes sense to me,” he said. “I think it’s believable and [based on my own experience] I completely understand.”

Asked whether it would better to live in shame rather than be killed, Ogawa said: “Well, that’s if it was you! Certainly, for an American, most people would probably think that way. However, this is all about the psychology of the criminal.”

Ogawa, who has authored several books on crime in Japan, including the 2011 classic, The Rules of a Police Detective at the Scene of the Crime is currently researching the case.

A Kanto detective, with 10 years experience on violent crime cases, agreed. The policeman, who agreed to give background comments, explained it this way: “Japan is a culture of shame and that shame helps keep order, in some sense,” he said. “The dark side of that is some people feel that it would be better to die than to live in shame. [But] when they impose that view on others — that’s still homicide. Obviously, you don’t kill people to let them avoid embarrassment.”

The officer also blamed the media. “In a case like this, when the boy was [allegedly] planning to murder someone, his desire to spare his family members from shame makes sense. Because whenever a juvenile commits a horrible crime, you people in the mass media hound the family and ask them to apologize or accept responsibility. Even a 15-year-old knows this. So the results are horrific – but the intentions may have been benevolent.”

Indeed, in cases involving murders by minors, it is common for reporters to pursue the parents for a statement, even though the minor’s name cannot be published. The responsibility for a crime is often forced upon family members. In a televised debate on crime reporting in Japan on TBS’s “Foreign Reporters Look At Japan”  in the spring of 2016, none of the guests could provide good answers as to why family members appear to be held accountable by the public or in media reports for crimes committed by relatives.

In Japan, most murderers are relatives

The current case also seems to be part of a greater pattern in Japan: inter-family homicides. The National Police Agency announced last year that 55% of homicides in 2016 took place between family members – a trend they see is increasing.

In cases of parents who, distraught over the loss of work, terminal illness or mentally instability, kill their children along with themselves, believe that this action spares the children from suffering, the term used for such acts in the media isn’t homicide but murishinju, which means forced suicide.

It’s a term that everyone knows. In September, former Mainichi newspaper reporter Yoko Kuroiwa wrote a column on the issue of reporting on family murders in which he took reporters to task.

“I never understood this during my newspaper reporting days,” he wrote. “When a child dies from abuse by family members, it’s a nationwide story. But if [the mother or father] kills the children, and then commits suicide, we call it murishinju and the news value plummets …We should stop using a term which just beautifies domestic violence.”

In practice, according to experts, those who murder family members are often given lighter sentences. And in some cases, the assailant is given a suspended sentence and serves no jail-time.

Currently, the Japanese press is hounding the parents of the 15-year-old for answers as to why their boy committed such a horrible crime. The irony is that, consciously or unconsciously, that was part of the underage murderer’s rationale.

That is a shame.

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