Americans and Japanese are both fond of pointing out the difference in crime rates. To many Japanese, America is seen as an outlaw nation, bristling with guns. And for many Americans, the juxtaposition of Japan's often ultra-violent entertainment with their low crime rate is fascinating. Japanese pop culture and crime statistics are often cited to defend American entertainment when it is accused of inspiring violence. But for anyone paying attention, startling crimes have a way of popping up in Japan unexpectedly. There were the "Otaku Murders" of 1988 and 1989, where Tsutomo Miyazaki kidnapped and killed four girls of around five years of age, reenacting gruesome scenes from his hentai collection. The serin gas attack in 1995 is another notable incident in the analogs of Japanese crime history. Perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, almost a dozen people were killed during the terrorist attack.
I asked a Japanese friend of mine once, "Are there gangs in Japan?" I've since learned that Japan has a long history of gangs, including everything from high school motorcycle gangs to the Yakuza, but he shook his head. He said there were no gangs, but in Japan sometimes kids just go crazy. He told me the story of a boy who would kill people on the street, discretely, and then hide in an alley to watch the ensuing action. He was eventually caught with the murder weapon near one of his crime scenes. This was several years ago, and I wrote the story off as an urban legend.
Recently, however, there have been several articles published about teenage boys committing gory crimes in Japan. Over the last year there have been multiple incidents. A 65-year old woman in Aichi prefecture was murdered on May 1, 2000. On May 3, a boy in Saga prefecture hijacked a bus with a knife. He held a six-year-old girl hostage, killed one woman, and wounded five others. There have been more crimes, including knivings in people's homes, baseball bat bludgeonings and matricide, budgeonings with hammers, and, just two weeks ago, a 15-year-old boy on Kyushu crept into a house during the night and attacked a family. All six family members were attacked, and three died.
Incidents such as these have been reported in many newspapers and online news sites, but I take the examples above from two articles on the subject. Tim Larimer, a correspondent for Time wrote "Natural-Born Killers?" Yuji Oniki, who writes for Pulp, a magazine devoted to manga and Japanese popular culture, covered the events in his column, "Nocturnal Emissions: Strange Crimes of Japan." Larimer and Oniki differ in their takes on the matter, but both cite some of the same reasons for the homicides.
Larimer covers the situation from a decidedly Western point of view, comparing the crimes with the recent wave of US school shootings. He claims that Japan's crime rates are the highest they've been in 32 years, and that violent crime among juveniles has increased 15% in the first six months of 2000. His article has a ring to it that sounds like, "See, America, we aren't so bad!" He attributes the problem to hikikomori, teenagers who withdraw from school, friends, and family. Larimer doesn't go so far as to suggest that American teen shooters such as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the infamous Columbine students, were hikikomori, but the implication is there. When it comes down to it, according to Larimer's line of thought, there are just some kids who go bad. Larimer interviews hikikomori, Japanese teens seeking to remedy their reclusive problem, and their psychiatrists to bolster his view.
Oniki, on the other hand, insists that the recent rash of teen crime is not so unusual, and he denies claims that youth crime in Japan is escalating. He does admit, however, that these crimes are uniquely disturbing, and that has captured the attention of the media and public. Oniki sees these crimes, and the growing number of hikikomori, as evidence of serious flaws in the Japanese educational system. While in the past studying for school entrance exams was called "exam hell," now parents see it as just a part of growing up. Many parents have gone through the same stress when they were children, unlike the older generations. There is not as much sympathy in homes for teenagers studying for exams. In addition, more weight has been placed on kids to get into good junior high schools and high schools than ever before. The last decade of economic repression has also added to the stress and importance of entrance exams. Often the stress renders teenagers incapable of dealing with the outside world, and they are reduced to becoming hikikomori.
Oniki advocates a change in the Japanese school system. He notes that in Japan parents and teachers are trying to take a strict approach to hikikomori. One family is even facing charges for killing their teenage son because they believed he was plotting a crime similar to those described earlier. This seems similar to the way we've cracked down on students in our own schools. Students who seem on the fringe of the group, or who wear certain styles of clothing are marked as possible "bad seeds." Oniki writes that these actions will not remedy the problem, and to really end the shocking crimes Japan must rethink their educational system.
I tend to agree with Oniki, partly because I read an article last year about three student deaths at Japanese schools. One school had a problem with tardy students, so they began slamming the gates shut when the morning bell rang. Teachers were required to stand outside, ushering students in. A girl was reportedly caught in the heavy, iron gate and killed instantly. In another incident, two mentally disabled students were caught smoking on school grounds. A teacher locked them in a work shed for almost two days, giving them only a cup of tea each. When the shed was opened, both had died from heat exhaustion. I read these stories in an online news site last spring, and will have to try to find them again. At any rate, it seems the Japanese school system is due for change. It has produced success, but at what cost?
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