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Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001

In the realm of crime, torture and depravity

THE DARK SIDE: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals, by Mark Schreiber. Kodansha International, 2001, 251 pp., 2,700 yen (cloth)

It's unfortunate but true that the names of notorious criminals usually outlive those of their victims. We remember Jack the Ripper, not the London prostitutes he butchered. Criminals are also barometers of the societies in which they fester, registering changes in manners and mores. We may not wish the Ripper on anyone, but no portrait of late-Victorian London -- or study of the day's social pathologies -- is complete without him.

Japan has its own rogue's gallery, one that has inspired many plays, books and films, but is little known abroad, save perhaps for its newer additions. The Aum Shinrikyo sect is back in the news again, with foreign commentators drawing the inevitable parallels between its 1995 poison-gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system and the recent terrorist assaults, though Aum's evil genius, Shoko Asahara, remains a shadowy figure abroad.

Now Mark Schreiber, a journalist, translator and expert on Japan's underside, has thrown welcome light on Asahara and his felonious predecessors in "The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals," a followup to his 1996 "Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan." While the first book concentrated on the half century after the war, the new one goes back to the beginning of the Edo Period (1603-1868), when traditional Japanese culture assumed many of its current forms and many early members of the rogue's gallery flourished.

Not content to simply retell anecdotes, often gleaned from period sources, Schreiber provides historical context with brief, pointed descriptions of social conditions, popular culture and the justice system, including the always-popular topics of tortures and punishments. But though the book is aptly titled and makes for a great guilty read (this is not the volume to have on the coffee table when future in-laws come calling), Schreiber is less the heavy-breathing voyeur than the well-read scholar, albeit one who writes in an uncluttered, unfussy prose. Tabloid material, in other words, but not tabloid style.

Along the way we learn about not only rogues, but famous magistrates and jurists, such as Itakura Shigemune (1586-1656), who conducted trials while hiding behind a shoji door and grinding green tea. The door, he said, kept him from "being swayed by physical features into censuring or favoring someone," while the evenness of the ground green tea told him "his heart was calm enough to make a decision on a case."

We also learn how Edo-era courts dealt with miscreants. Justice was stern and punishments roughly fit the crime and social status of the criminal. Arsonists were burned at the stake, while misbehaving samurai were usually allowed to exit honorably by committing seppuku (slashing one's belly) with a sword-wielding second administering the coup de grace to the neck. The most extreme penalty was "nokogiribiki," in which the criminal's head was immobilized with straw bales and citizens were invited to hack it off with thoughtfully provided saws. Schreiber notes, however, that "Few could bring themselves to (accept the invitation)" and the punishment passed out of fashion.

The highlights (or lowlights) of the book, however, are its accounts of criminals, including Edo-era outlaws like Nezumi Kozo (Kid Rat), a thief who made a fortune and blew it all on women and gambling, and Kunisada Chuji, a gangster who lived on the lam and one step ahead of the law for 24 years.

Entering the Meiji Era (1896-1912), women begin to appear on the book's rap sheet, notably O-Den Takahashi, a prostitute who slit the throat of a wealthy patron and robbed his corpse with the aim of starting a new life. Instead, she won notoriety as the last woman to be beheaded by the sword, in 1879. When she squirmed at the crucial moment, the rattled executioner missed his stroke and was forced to hack again and again, finally finishing the job as though he were, in the phrase of a contemporary account, "cutting a giant radish." Soon after, the noose replaced the sword -- and is still with us today.

The book's most notorious criminal -- at the least the one who has earned the most international fame -- is Sada Abe, a prostitute-turned-maid who fell into an affair with her employer -- the married proprietor of a Japanese-style restaurant in Nakano Ward. Unable to control their passion, Abe and her lover, Kichizo Ishida, holed up in a nearby inn, where they spent days in erotic revels that concluded with Abe strangling Ishida with her obi cord and severing his private parts for a keepsake. Two days later, on May 20, 1936, she gave herself up to the police, still in possession of her grisly love token and already a tabloid legend. After spending five years in prison, she went straight, working as a waitress and eventually winning commendation as a "model employee."

She also became the inspiration for "In the Realm of the Senses" (Ai no Corrida), Nagisa Oshima's 1976 film about Abe's saga that created a scandal in Japan but made his international reputation. And Abe? She dropped out of sight, but was rumored to have spent her last years in a Buddhist nunnery.

If anything, Schreiber's accounts of this and other criminal careers are too uncluttered -- and some of his portraits are little more than vivid sketches as a result. Nonetheless, "The Dark Side" offers much insight into a side of Japan that journalistic cliches about a "crime-free society" paper over, but the Japanese themselves know quite well. Now, with "The Dark Side," everyone can be in on the secret.

Mark Schilling is the author of "The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture" and "Contemporary Japanese Film."

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