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Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007


The media merry-go-round fueled by sensational murders

On Jan. 5, 21-year-old Yuki Muto was arrested for murdering his sister, Azumi, on Dec. 30 at their home in Shibuya, Tokyo. He reportedly told police that he killed Azumi because she criticized his unsuccessful attempts to get into dental college and belittled his ambitions, later adding that he was under tremendous pressure from his parents to become a dentist like his father.

Though the case is still ongoing, it seems obvious that the young man's psychological state would be the basis for his defense. However, when Muto's lawyer, who was presumably hired by his parents, held a press conference following the arrest, he did something unusual. He brought along a "representative of the parents," essentially to defend them.

This woman, apparently a friend of the family, told reporters that contrary to Yuki's statement, his parents had never pressured him to become a dentist, and, in fact, had encouraged him to pursue other vocations.

As far as I know, no one in the press has questioned the lawyer's wisdom in bringing along someone who basically undermines his main line of defense. The parents, it would seem, fear the media's comments about themselves more than the prosecutors' case against their son.

School pressure

One of the highest-profile crimes of last year was the incident in Nara in June. In this case, a boy burned down his house, killing his stepmother, because he was under pressure to do better at school from his physician father, who expected him to follow in his footsteps. The recruitment of a family friend by Yuki Muto's parents to put in a good word for them at the press conference was an obvious attempt to pre-empt media speculation along those lines, but it was too late. Already the family's laundry was being aired on the wide shows and in the weekly magazines.

The Muto murder was made doubly sensational by the way the boy allegedly tried to get rid of the body, cutting it up into pieces. Such barabara jiken ("scattered-pieces incidents") always attract attention for obvious reasons; according to statistics mentioned in many articles and news stories about the case, the annual number of such incidents in Japan has been steadily increasing since the mid-1980s. The Muto incident diverges from the pattern in one aspect. Usually, it's a woman who does the cutting. The reasons are practical. Dead bodies are heavy and difficult to dispose of. By herself, a woman may not be able to transport a corpse and so it makes sense to cut up the body into manageable pieces. This was the premise of Natsuo Kirino's best seller "Out," in which a woman kills her husband and then enlists some co-workers to help her dismember and dispose of the body.

However, another characteristic of barabara jiken is that the killing itself is not planned out, but is more or less the result of a sudden impulse. It is this aspect that prompted Aera to compare the other recent barabara murder that happened in Shibuya to "Out."

The protagonist in the book murders her husband after she finds out he has gambling debts and is seeing another woman. He has also abused her. According to news reports, the wife in the other Shibuya case, Kaori Mihashi, had been on bad terms with her husband Yusuke almost since the day they were married in 2003. At one point, she landed in the hospital with bruises, but when police were called, she refused to press charges against Yusuke. Both reportedly had affairs, but on the night Kaori allegedly killed her husband with a wine bottle as he slept, he had come home drunk and supposedly told her he wanted a divorce.

The aspect of the case that the media has emphasized is that the Mihashi couple were, at least outwardly, well-to-do. Just as the coverage of the Muto case has focused on the alleged murderer's frustration with failing to get into dental college, the coverage of the Mihashi case has mostly been about Kaori's lifelong dream of living the good life and how marriage to an "elite salaryman" didn't make those dreams come true.

TV Tarento Terry Ito, on TBS's "Sunday Japon," ventured that Kaori didn't care that her husband was having an affair because she'd be doing the same, but that she probably snapped when he talked about divorcing her and marrying his mistress because she herself had not yet found a "rich enough" man to remarry.

Shukan Asahi bolsters this theory when it says that Kaori was on bad terms with her company-president father, which means it would have been humiliating to return home after a divorce.

Even more interesting was the "evidence" collected by Yusuke's anonymous "acquaintances," who it seems never liked Kaori much in the first place. One of them somehow obtained security tapes from the apartment building where the Mihashis lived disproving Kaori's missing persons statement, which stated that Yusuke simply left for work and never returned. Another one recorded phone conversations in which he drew Kaori out by suggesting the police would naturally suspect her. Shukan Bunshun estimates that the guy has made at least a million yen selling the recording to various wide shows.

Media trial

Sensational murders like these two get tried in the media all the time long before they reach the courtroom. Interested parties with reputations to protect (the Muto parents) or axes to grind (Yusuke's anonymous friends) may feel it necessary or useful to contact the media directly. Yusuke's parents have not made a peep so far. Though he is the victim in this case, the picture emerging is that of a spoiled child whose good looks and ambition didn't get him the wife and career he thought he deserved. Often, the parents of murder victims readily air their grief and anger to reporters, but the Mihashis have decided that their dead son is on his own.

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