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Audition

It has no doubt been noticed by many that there are dark strands permeating Japanese society. I have always struck by the barbarity of a number of murders in Japan, not to say that murders in the UK or USA are any less gruesome. The LA Times reported on this state of affairs in an article today (comments after the break):

Grisly crimes alarming Japan
By Bruce Wallace, Times Staff Writer
May 27, 2007

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.

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The article’s primary concern is the navel gazing in Japan over such incidents. David Leheny explores a similar theme in the second chapter of Think Global, Fear Local where he uses the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin gas attack as well as the infamous Seito Sakakibara case in Kobe (where the head of 11-year old Jun Hase was left in front of his school’s gate) to demonstrate that Japan was undergoing a period of self-examination in 1995. He discusses a sense of impending crisis, a tone echoed by the LA Times article.

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.

It is interesting to look at the theories given as to why these grisly murders are occurring:

  • Copycats: 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.
  • Economic Inequality: … and that the cause is the increasing divide between rich and poor in a society that once prided itself on egalitarianism.
  • Self-Validation: “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.”
  • Failure of Social Engineering: Some criminologists argue that socially dysfunctional students go unnoticed in a school system in which docility and acute shyness are regarded as normal.
  • Economic Insecurity: Corporate restructuring that ended the jobs-for-life era also has been cited as a possible cause.
  • Video Games: So too the tunnel vision produced by playing violent video games.
  • Decline of Moral Values: “We are witnessing the deterioration of Japanese society,” lawmaker Tsuneo Suzuki told parliament. “We must stem this appalling destruction of family and community morals.”
  • Popular Culture: “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.”
  • Beyond Reason: “When someone dismembers a body, that’s total hatred,” Sakoda said. “That’s when killing’s not enough. It’s hate beyond reason.”

So far, so very Daily Mail. Video games, rap music and Hollywood covers the gamut of responses that we get to killings such as those at Virginia Tech or Columbine. Blaming the schools is another common response, as is declining moral values. The reasons I find more unique to Japan, although I’m sure we see them elsewhere, are the economic reasons, the suggestion that a lack of social mobility and job security can produce horrific violence. They are also the least convincing for me.

Wallace is right to recognise ‘that dismembering bodies is neither unique to Japan nor a newly arrived phenomenon‘, but for me, that is besides the point. No-one would doubt that such barbarity isn’t age old, after all, we live in a decidedly less violent era than that of our ancestors thanks to increased social control and engineering. What is most interesting is the supposed reflection by the Japanese as to what these killings say about their society, how Japanese society could produce such people and such actions. This reflexivity grips the collective sense of anxiety that permeates modern society, anxiety that might be exploited through draconian law and shallow populism for other ends.

Why were these killings so grisly? I can’t answer that, I don’t think anyone can, not even the killers themselves. However, some people may choose to draw a link between these killings and the systemic violence in the Japanese school system (remember the hoo-hah about bullying a few months ago?), and there is a case to be made there, for sure.

What does this say about modern Japanese society? I don’t know the answer to that either, except for what I’m told: there is a collective sense of impending catastrophe in some quarters. But hey, that’s not really new is it? There’s always been ‘the end is nigh’ types.

What should be done? Nope, no answer here either. Sorry. Well, okay, for the sake of a conclusion I’ll trot out the usual suspects: better parenting, attentive teachers, and effective policing. Like it or not, there is nothing particularly strange about many of these people, they are just at the extremes of human experience. Some of them made mistakes, some of them were just a bit too passionate, but all of them were human, and each of us has that capacity within us. All it takes is a little conditioning and a breaking point.

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