Books: Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan (Mark Schreiber)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2009-01-23 12:02:39-05:00 No comments

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Get past the lurid title, and Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan offers a fair amount beyond the cheap frisson promised there. Part true-crime anthology and part social history, it uses the crimes in question as jumping-off points for insights into Japanese society, both conventional and criminal. The author, Mark Schreiber, has approached the subject as an insider. As a resident of Japan with a long journalism pedigree for many English-language publications there, Mark writes with the confidence and authority needed to make this more than just a rehash of what’s in the newspaper archives.

The opening and closing chapters are devoted to what is arguably Japan’s most infamous crime of late: the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo subway gassings, the details of which were still unfolding as the book was being written. For this reason the book doesn’t focus in much detail on that incident—a book like The Cult at the End of the World may serve the curious reader better—but it works as a useful way of bookending all the other material covered here. Japan’s just as capable as any other country of having its equilibrium punctured, no matter what the internal or external perceptions.

Schreiber focuses on the years after WWII if only because there is that much more documentary evidence for each case, and combs everything from contemporaneous books and news articles to police reports to produce his overviews. Many of the stories are chosen for the way they comment on some aspect of Japan in the postwar years, such as the first actual case in the book, that of serial rapist and murderer Yoshio Kodaira. His story took place against the anarchy of the postwar years—a perfect setting for any number of crimes, thanks to the general atmosphere of privation and hunger, and Kodaira was able to violate and kill women repeatedly without getting caught.

When Kodaira finally was caught, his rough upbringing and wartime exploits in China sounded horrifying to others, but Schreiber puts the man into context this way: he had killed and raped in the service of his country before finally deciding to do it for himself. Many commentators, including Edogawa Rampo, blamed the general postwar atmosphere for allowing such a fiend to arise. But it’s not clear whether Rampo (or anyone else) felt that the atmosphere during the war years was at least as germinative; it would apparently take decades before such questioning was even possible. Schreiber doesn’t tackle this thornier side of the story, but that would presumably be a book unto itself.

The most fascinating crimes detailed in the book do not require any sociological angle to be interesting. They’re pure exercises in bafflement, like something Rampo himself would have constructed for his readers. A man walks into a bank, poisons most of the staff by pretending to administer anti-dysentery medicine, and makes off with hundreds of thousands of yen. A railway executive’s last hours on earth are dissected in hairsplitting detail after his mangled body is found, apparently crushed by a train. A BOAC stewardess is found strangled in a shallow river, with one of the few suspects being a Belgian priest, but with many of the trails leading to him suspiciously erased. The confection manufacturers Glico-Morinaga are blackmailed by a man with a name ripped right from one of Rampo’s own books, and despite a preponderance of physical evidence (including photos of the criminals) no one is ever apprehended.

The most inexplicable and infamous of the bunch has the aura of a wholly existential crime: something committed simply for the sake of doing it, and nothing else. A man posing as a policeman robbed an armored car bringing money to one of the Toshiba Corporation’s factories. This he did by tricking the drivers into thinking dynamite had been planted in the car, thanks to the use of a smoke grenade. Both man and money simply disappear. Perhaps the satisfaction of having gotten away with it would have been more valuable to the perpetrator than the cash itself. (Not to mention the money would have been unspendable anyway—although the statute of limitations for the crime expired back in 2000.)

Other crimes described are no less interesting for actually having a proper conclusion, like the heartbreaking kidnapping and death of the boy Yoshinobu Murakoshi—the Japanese version of the Adam Walsh case. The latter, and several of the other incidents in the book, point up how authorities in Japan for a long time preferred confessions to a preponderance of physical evidence in capital crimes: it not only gives the cops something easy to sign off with, but provides the public with that much more of a sense that the guilty have not only been found but made to atone for their transgressions. I suspect this feeling is not confined to Japan, either: when Josef Mengele’s body was exhumed and verified, Time magazine wrote: “His bones do not satisfy.” We wanted more than his corpse as payment for all that suffering. Yoshinobu’s killer—Tamotsu Kohara, a former watch repairman already in prison for theft—eventually cracked under police scrutiny and expressed grave remorse for killing the boy, something that may well have been instrumental in allowing the parents to move on with their lives.

A few chapters bring us examples of the phenomenon of extreme partisan violence in Japan, something not widely understood outside the country since it receives little discussion. Most notorious and widely-remembered is the Red Army hijacking of a JAL 727 in 1970, but Shocking Crimes talks instead about a 1972 incident where a ragtag gang of Red Army members stormed a mountain villa and held everyone hostage. (Some precursor events to this incident seem to have been treated in a fictional form in the indie film Kichiku dai-enkai.) Two other chapters deal with internecine gangster warfare, a colorful subject that could and indeed has filled many books on its own, but are handled here in a nicely microcosmic way.

The most intriguing details in Shocking Crimes are often the auxiliary ones. For me the most consistently fascinating material in this vein involved the way popular mystery and crime authors were tapped for their opinions and insights—whether or not they were accurate or relevant. Quotes from bestselling mystery novelist Seichō Matsumoto and, yes, Rampo himself show them discussing possible motives, causes and methodologies for the crimes on display. The manner of the speculation is often more absorbing than the conclusions drawn, which typically hew on the side of predictable moralizing rather than keen social insight. But they’re still interesting if only because they show how writers (rather than credential-less pundits-in-themselves) had and continue to have a measure of popular favor as renowned authorities.

It would be easy for me to nitpick about what wasn’t included. One particularly infamous crime not featured here was the abduction and murder of Junko Furuta. The fallout from that case produced at least as much scandal, debate and journalistic product as any of the other incidents discussed here; little about it is available in English apart from the Wikipedia entry (which I actually helped create, so yes, I’m a little biased in wanting to see more about it). Nor is there mention of the cannibal Issei Sagawa, although that might be because his crime was committed in France and not Japan proper. I also wondered if there might have been space for a discussion of the so-called “otaku murderer”, Tsutomu Miyazaki, although that might have been because the details of his case were still ongoing at the time the book was written.

My final complaint: the book is, as of this writing, out of print. Schreiber’s other books on roughly the same subject, The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals and Tokyo Confidential, are a little easier to track down, though, and will probably make good follow-ups to this one.

Tags: Japan crime review