This opinion piece was originally published by Wulfstan’s Literary Tumble in 2012 and is written by Ryujin.
Let’s not mince words; Japan has disgraced itself in the eyes of the world once again. Yet, as often goes with negative stories on this country, most of it has slipped under the radar. In January 2011, a suspected murderer, while awaiting trial, was allowed to not only write a book about his crime, but got it published. This begs the question, how on Earth was this allowed to pass? How did Japan let a murderer prejudice a trial, build up hero worship and sympathy amongst the general population when most prisoners find it hard to even contact lawyers.
The book was written by Ichihashi Tatsuya, a Tokyo native who murdered British English teacher, Lindsey Ann Hawker in 2008. The book does not revisit the actual crime, but we should, because this is the reason for the book and the reason for this article.
Lindsey Ann Hawker was a 22-year old teacher working for NOVA in Japan. She taught a number of classes to adults and maybe children in NOVA approved schools and offices in Tokyo. These schools were often a series of rooms in malls or office blocks. The corporation eventually went bankrupt due to massive fraud and embezzlement.
She has been described as travel mad by friends and the Coventry native left for Japan soon after graduating in Biology from Leeds University in 2008. After messaging her friends to tell them her boyfriend would visit her in Japan, she went out to meet her 29-year old student, Ichihashi for a private lesson. Police found her body in a bathtub filled with sand on Ichihashi’s balcony. A later autopsy confirmed that she had been beaten and strangled. Somehow the police managed to let Ichihashi evade them. He jumped down from the balcony and ran away barefooted from 9 police officers. It took over a year for them to finally capture him in Osaka.
It is fair to ask just how many police officers were on the job of finding him and how hard they tried. There were periodic announcements, including ideas about plastic surgery and how he might be disguising himself as a woman, but no solid leads and no decisive action. Many wondered if Japan cared. He was eventually stopped by police on Nov.10, 2009 at the ferry terminal in Osaka. For some reason, maybe fatigue from running away, he gave the police his real name and was arrested. Police maintain he has confessed his guilt, but still, after over a year he has not gone to trial.
The book does not deal with the murderous act nor does it give his motives. Instead, the book is a tale about his flight from the useless police, his travels around Japan and his attempts to change his appearance. According to the book, he started trying to change the shape of his nose, cut at his lower lip to make it smaller and remove moles from his skin. His obsession escalated as time went by and he earned money on construction jobs.
This obsession led to his arrest. While in Osaka, he began having numerous operations to change his appearance. During routine pre-surgery photography of his skin staff noticed scarring where moles had been removed. They became suspicious and sent photos to police. So in the end, his attempts to evade the police led him straight to them. It’s clear to see the police played no part in finding him.
The book is a clear attempt to whip up sympathy and to make him look like a better man than he is. Perhaps he is attempting to become the loveable rogue, the traveller who suffered for his sins. It is entirely possible that people in Japan are going to fall for this, as they once did with Issei Sagawa. Sagawa, then a student in France, invited a girl he felt enamoured by, called Renée Hartevelt, to his apartment for dinner. Over dinner and as she read German poetry to him, he decided what he wanted to do most in the world was eat her.
He was caught while trying to dump what remained of her body in a lake. A French judge declared him insane and recommended he should be locked in a mental institution for the rest of his life. However, Japanese author Inuhiko Yomota visited Sagawa in the institution and together they penned his account of the murders, In the Fog. The book and the fame that followed it led the French authorities into a grave mistake. They let him be extradited to Japan. The Japanese then did a neat bureaucratic trick of finding absent papers from the French and ruled it impossible to keep him in gaol. Just five years after the brutal murder, he was allowed to check himself out of prison and has been a free man ever since.
If that was not shocking enough, that a convicted murderer was allowed to just roam free, perhaps because he killed a foreigner in a foreign land, he then became a minor celebrity in Japan. Quite why the Japanese authorities granted him his freedom is beyond the wit of any sane person. Yet, this is not a sane world we live in.
Displaying gross cultural insensitivity and unabashed morbidity, the book became a bestseller and Sagawa found himself being treated rather well. He was not hounded from place to place, threatened with murder or shunned; quite the opposite in fact. They actually loved him for what he had done.
He admitted his crime in public and took pride in it. He was hired for speaking jobs across the country, found himself on Japanese TV shows, acted in a few movies, started a career as a painter (most of which focus on the female form) and perhaps grossest of all, became a food critic for Spa Magazine.
Time will tell if Ichihashi Tatsuya is attempting to set himself up as the new Sagawa. First of all, he does not have the luxury of having done his crime in a foreign country where the Japanese police had not lost a lot of pride by being so incompetent. Secondly, he has not gone to trial yet.
However, there are several factors that are clear for all to see. Firstly, he was allowed to write his book in a Japanese prison, when most people are denied all chances to speak to people, get proper representation and get their rights respected. This suggests some kind of official collusion. Secondly, the book has become a best seller since publication. This suggests the Japanese morbid appetite for murder.
Thirdly, he is seemingly trying to buy good will be promising not to profit financially from sales. What else would he do with the money if he is to spend his life in prison? The biggest fear from the book is that he will not go to prison. That somehow the book and the publicity will pay off and he’ll be acquitted because of a lack of evidence, like when Obara Joji got away with murdering Lucie Blackman.
The Blackman case caused shock in Britain because her body had been found 250 meters from his condo and he was already a convicted rapist and murderer. However, while the father blamed key evidence not being given in court, others blamed him for having accepted wergeld. This is not an article to talk politics, crime or such. This, no matter how tempting it may be, it not about Japan’s lack of care for foreign murder victims; what it is about is the ethics of writing and the ethics of publishing.
Should a murderer, convicted or suspected, be allowed to profit from the act? Should they be allowed to gain fame, sympathy and even money from it? The sane person might think no, they should not. In fact many countries ban criminals from profiting from their crimes. But, is there a difference beyond profit between those who write about their own crimes and those who write about the crimes of others?
If there is a famous criminal, a serial murderer or rapist, there is a book discussing it. This goes for the murders and Church burnings by Norwegian metal fans in the 1990s and to all manner of serial killers throughout the 20th century and beyond. The fact remains these books come into effect because there is a morbid curiosity to read about what happened. This curiosity is perverse and grim when you think about it, but it is understandable.
However, what is not understandable is how these kinds of things can be used to profit the murderer. Instead they should be used to understand the crime and how to prevent it from reoccurring; whether through mental health awareness, advances in neurology or better policing.
Should these books have any sense of artistic merit? This is a difficult question. The gut instinct says no, the books are about abhorrent things, but so are many books. There are many books containing rape, mutilation and violence, are they any more or less artistic because it’s fake? Or what about ancient and medieval artwork about classical stories containing these scenes?
Perhaps we need to re-examine our own morals and draw clear lines. There needs to be justice before examination. There needs to be a clear distinction between writing about a real event and glorifying your own misdeeds. We should ask ourselves if we really need to read about what a criminal did, why, how and how they felt afterwards. We need to ask if such details of people’s lives are really out business. More importantly, we need to ask ourselves if people like Lindsey Ann Hawker and Renée Hartevelt deserved better than this.