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Sunday, May 2, 2010

MEDIA MIX

He's unusual, so why not just kill him


In a review of the book "Shikei de Ii desu" ("The Death Sentence Is OK With Me") that appears in the Feb. 26 issue of Kinyobi, critic Tatsunori Yagashiwa asks if a society that "disregards illness" can properly judge criminal suspects.

The book, written by Kyodo News reporter Takashi Iketani, chronicles the case of Yukio Yamaji, who was executed last July at the age of 25 for the rape and murder of a 27-year-old woman and her 19-year-old sister in 2005. In 2000, Yamaji killed his own mother, but because he was a minor, he was sent to a juvenile rehabilitation facility.

Yamaji was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome while in the facility. Technically not an "illness," AS is an autism spectrum disorder characterized by abnormalities in social interaction and communication. Most AS individuals lead relatively normal lives, though many have problems with social adjustment and independent living. During Yamaji's trial for the murders of the two women, his defense team brought up his AS diagnosis, which was never mentioned in the media coverage of the case. The judge, however, accepted expert testimony saying that the defendant was mentally competent. Eventually, Yamaji decided not to appeal his death sentence, thus providing the book with its chilling title. One of the reasons the judge gave for the sentence was that Yamaji did not "reflect on his crime." The implication is that had he shown proper remorse, he might have received a lighter sentence. One of the prime traits of people with AS is a demonstrable lack of empathy, an inability to recognize an interlocutor's feelings or reactions. This is not to say that Yamaji did not understand the gravity of his crime, only that he didn't act the way we expect such people to act. Some people involved in the case were put off by his habit of "smirking," which they took to mean a lack of sincerity.

Experts say that AS individuals are not predisposed to violent or criminal behavior: AS people who commit crimes usually have psychiatric disorders that AS may exacerbate. That seems to be Iketani's conclusion. He interviewed several psychiatrists who say that AS people, especially those who have been institutionalized for whatever reason, need support to live independently, but Yamaji, who grew up in abject poverty, only received support for a short while, after which his life spiraled out of control. When he remembered how killing his mother had made him feel cleansed, he wanted to feel that way again.

Iketani points out a number of murder and manslaughter cases in which suspects were later diagnosed with AS, including several committed by minors. These cases received media coverage but the AS aspects were disregarded by both the courts and the media. Any mention of diminished capacity might invite sympathy for the suspect and thus subtract sympathy normally reserved for the victim. Also, there is the danger that all people with Aspergers could be perceived as potential criminals.

Right now there is a great deal of proactive coverage of AS in the media and a number of new books about the condition that address the Japanese public's negative view of people who seem unusual. Despite the widespread acceptance of otaku (geek) culture, the general public tends to be uncomfortable with people with obsessive behaviors, which is a sign of AS. However, some companies now are not only hiring AS people but trying to take advantage of their "special abilities."

Much has been made of these special abilities. Famous historical persons who are believed to have had AS include Isaac Newton, Hans Christian Andersen, George Orwell and Albert Einstein, but the whole genius label is as much of a potentially dangerous stereotype as the criminal one is. AS individuals tend to have a propensity for focused, even repetitive work. Some are good at languages, others at numbers. One job recruitment company profiled on NHK's "Closeup Gendai" hired a man with AS who had graduated from the University of Tokyo but could not hold a job because he "never fit in." Now he writes a company blog aimed at students that is extremely popular. Shukan Gendai recently wrote about Reo Nagumo, the CEO of a very successful music production company who has AS. "People say I'm a genius," he tells the reporter. "I don't think about it myself."

A recent four-part series in the Tokyo Shimbun advocates more general understanding of the condition. People with AS who are interviewed in the media say that when they were diagnosed, they felt relief, because they now had an explanation for why they were bullied at school or why colleagues get angry with them for reasons they can't fathom. Conversely, when people know that a colleague or a loved one has AS they learn to adjust.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a limit to this understanding. The term hattatsu shogai is considered discriminatory, even though the government enacted a law in 2005 to support the developmentally disabled. The media tend to avoid the term, especially when it is connected to social problems. When you read about a crime in which the suspect's behavior is difficult to explain, there is a feeling that the suspect may be developmentally disabled, but since the media have an unspoken agreement not to talk about such things, it's difficult to tell.

There is some controversy over whether or not AS should be considered a developmental disability. Many people with AS prefer to be thought of as different rather than disabled, but in any case the general public needs to have a full understanding of the condition in order for AS people to integrate fully into society, and that includes understanding what can go wrong. It's impossible to know whether or not Yamaji would have been fully rehabilitated had his situation received proper and continuing attention, but Iketani implies that if he had, those two women might still be alive.



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