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Sunday, May 13, 2001

MEDIA MIX

RANDOM KILLINGS

Public participation aids media more than police


Prior to Thursday's arrest of a suspect in the April 30 murder of a 19-year-old woman in Asakusa, hundreds of people had called the police with information. The majority of these calls were not made until several days after the murder, when police found some items that they believe the killer discarded while fleeing the crime.

The item that set bells ringing was a cap modeled on the head and face of a lesser panda. All the news programs, including the "wide shows," which covered the murder more extensively than they did any other story during Golden Week, placed the cap at the center of their coverage.

As they often do when covering such cases, TV reporters visited the scene of the crime, a narrow alley, and went over the murder in horrible detail, describing how the killer kneeled over the woman's prone form and repeatedly stabbed her as she screamed for help.

In any other context the furry cap would be considered cute, maybe even ridiculous, but in this case it added a chillingly vivid aspect to the murder. It also made the suspect easier to spot, though, obviously, only in hindsight since the cap was no longer on the man's head.

Very few people wear such headgear in public (and, certainly, it will be a long time before you see someone wear that particular cap again). If the police had found, say, a Giants baseball cap, there would have been fewer calls. As it is they received more than 1,000, some from as far away as Hokkaido and several recollections stretching from as far back as six months ago.

Random killings like this one are not the forte of the Japanese police, who have little experience in the forensic art of profiling, so leads are important and the media's participation supposedly crucial. Interestingly, before the arrest a number of commentators wondered out loud if the cap discovery wouldn't prove counterproductive, since it was assumed that many of the calls were unreliable and the police would have to follow a lot of meaningless leads.

Arbitrary murders like the one that happened in Asakusa make the media uncomfortable in ways that go beyond the basic horror of the act. The media hate a vacuum, and will do whatever they can to fill it with a narrative.

On April 28, four young men beat a 43-year-old salaryman into a coma in Sangenjaya Station. He died about a week later. Before the four men finally gave themselves up, news shows were creating a narrative based mostly on conjecture, since there wasn't much in the way of eyewitness accounts. The salaryman may have been drunk. He supposedly was the kind of person who spoke his mind (reporters always said he worked for "a foreign company," thus reinforcing the impression that he wasn't your usual unassuming Japanese desk jockey). The violent encounter was thus rendered as the unfortunate but natural outcome of specific circumstances: middle-aged guy complains to group of over-sensitive, disaffected youths.

The news shows needed a narrative for the Asakusa case, too, and constructed one based on sightings of the panda cap at various places in Hokkaido, Tokyo, and elsewhere. Even before that, wide-show reporters interviewed homeless men in the area around the murder site, since it was believed that the killer was indigent. It was, in fact, a Fuji TV reporter who found the murder weapon while conducting interviews.

At times, the media's desperation for context showed. There was a report that someone had seen a man with a panda cap at a betting office in Setagaya Ward, thus briefly putting into play the unlikely theory that the killer may also have been responsible for the motiveless murder of a family in Setagaya on New Year's Eve. It was as if one unsolved random act of violence was seeking out another to complement itself.

In the end, the news shows did a pretty good job of reconstructing the man's movements, but it didn't make any difference. The one call that led to the arrest was prompted by the police sketch of the suspect, not the cap, and it turns out that the sketch was not based on eyewitness descriptions but on descriptions from within the police department itself. The police already knew the suspect's name, even his address, probably as soon as they found the cap, because a man wearing the same kind of headgear went to Ueno Police Station last February to borrow some money and filled out a form with his name and address in Hokkaido.

As it turns out, the 1,000 telephone calls were more useful to the media in creating a narrative than they were to the police in catching the criminal. As a final bizarre twist, the suspect, after confessing to the murder, reportedly told police that he wasn't aware everyone was looking for him. He never watches TV.



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