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Sunday, Dec. 18, 2005


Legal loner courts controversy every day

Staff writer

Any weekday, if you happen to drop by the Tokyo District/High/Summary Court building in Kasumigasaki, among all the besuited lawyers and the like you'll likely spy a blond, bearded young man leafing through the day's schedules in the first-floor lobby, or shuffling in and out of courtrooms big and small. He won't be hard to spot; he'll be wearing a skirt.

News photo
Michiaki Aso, who goes by the name of Asozan Daifunka (literally, ``the great explosion of Mount Aso''), outside the central Tokyo courthouse where he spends all day, every weekday, watching the wheels of justice turn.

Every morning for more than six years now, comedian Asozan Daifunka (literally, "the great explosion of Mount Aso") has commuted to the courthouse, enduring rush-hour crowds and even forsaking a full-time job, so that he can witness the trials of complete strangers all day long.

To get ideas for his act? No. He hardly ever has any gigs nowadays. To keep the nation's judicial system in check? Not quite. However, the 31-year-old Yamagata native says he does get a buzz from "representing the nation's court watchers" when there's no one else in the gallery -- though that's no longer a novelty to him, because most trials he goes to are sparsely attended anyway.

Then why?

"Well, I simply want to see an interesting scene unfold," said Asozan, while eating a plate of spaghetti during his lunch break at a cafe in Hibiya Park. "In court, every little detail about the defendants' lives gets exposed, even things they don't want people to know. . . . And people's foolishness often comes to light. That's what I'm really after."

Asozan, whose real name is Michiaki Aso, said he was assigned to his first court case in 1999, when his boss and comedian agency owner Yutaka Okawa "ordered" him to draw a lot to win a gallery seat for the trial of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara. At that time, Okawa, an offbeat comedian himself who often bases his acts on news events, wanted to see Asahara so badly that he had a bunch of comedians from his agency line up for the lottery. (In Japan, everyone apart from accredited court reporters has to brave the weather, line up outside, draw a lot and win it in order to watch "popular" cases such as that of Asahara.)

Ironically, Asahara's case has attracted media and public attention not just because of the sheer horror of the fatal sarin gas attacks he was accused of inspiring, but also for the grubby, aloof appearance of the cult founder and his irrelevant remarks.

But Asozan, who got a spare ticket from Okawa that day in 1999 and could therefore sit in on the proceedings as well, found the courtroom debate surprisingly dull.

"By then, nearly four years had elapsed since the trial's start, and everyone working on the case seemed to be getting weary," he recalled. "They were discussing endless details about which direction an empty can had been placed. I was hoping for a lively debate and people shouting 'Objection!' -- but the whole session lacked energy. Then, Asahara suddenly rose from his chair and mumbled, 'I'm tired,' to which the judge replied dispassionately, 'Uh . . . you sit down.' I was shocked, but at the same time I felt, 'Well, this is not too hard to understand.' "

So on the afternoon that day, Asozan said he hung around and watched another trial, this time a run-of-the-mill car theft case. A middle-aged man, who had been arrested while driving a stolen car to Hokkaido, was on the witness stand. Asozan said he couldn't believe his ears when he heard him answer a prosecutor's question on where he was headed.

"He said, 'I . . . I wanted to go to the memorial museum for [late movie star] Yujiro Ishihara in Otaru,' " he recalled. "When pressed for details, he said, 'As a brother of Yujiro Ishihara, I felt compelled to pay respects to the museum.' I looked at his face, and failed altogether to detect signs of his star sibling there! But seemingly unfazed, all the judges, prosecutors and lawyers continued as if nothing had happened."

That court session was a turning point for Asozan, whose entire lifestyle now revolves around watching trials.

Despite his unique appearance and a bizarre obsession with trials, however, Asozan has a Zen-like serenity in his approach to life. Having graduated from a vocational college in Tokyo and worked as an assistant director for TV programs for a while, this polite, introspective man says he harbors "no desire to get rich or famous," and the reason he keeps watching trials is for his own personal enjoyment.

Today, he is completely versed in all stages of the nation's judicial system, including arraignments, deliberations and rulings. He is also familiar with the traits and characters of the judges. Not only that, but Asozan has developed a niche of his own.

Of all grisly, gruesome, headline-grabbing criminal cases under the sun, he likes nothing more than sitting in on the relatively petty ones such as theft, groping and fraud. It is such cases, he said, that give him a sense of "Wow, this could happen to anyone" -- as opposed to more serious crimes such as murder and rape.

Recently Asozan has also ventured out of Tokyo in search of courtroom drama. That was to try his luck at the Nara District Court, when it held a lottery for the opening session in the trial of the so-called so-on-obasan (noise-making middle-aged woman), in which a vengeful-looking housewife named Miyoko Kawahara stood accused of torturing a neighbor by shouting and playing ear-splitting music nonstop for 2 1/2 years. He didn't get a seat. Undaunted, on the following day, he hopped on a train to Osaka and entered the lottery to attend the appeal court ruling in the curry-poisoning murder trial of Masumi Hayashi. He couldn't get in there either.

Nonetheless, Asozan is not short of a few jewels in his courtwatching crown. He has been privileged to have a few "chats" with the venerable legal professionals, he said, and apparently he often bumps into lawyers and judges in the smoking room at the Tokyo courthouse. One judge, he recalled with pride, once even remarked privately, "I see you a lot in court." Even more memorably, perhaps, he recounted how a high-profile lawyer once told him that he had read Asozan's book, which was published last year and gives funny accounts of his court-watching experiences.

Such fleeting moments of judicial glory aside, however, trial-watching is by no means a glamorous career -- and it is close to being a financial disaster. Although Asozan regularly writes up his anecdotes for the hard-edged media-commentary magazine Tsukuru (and the online version of the major sports daily, Nikkan Sports), and will soon start a new series for a porn magazine, the pay is, by his own admission, quite paltry.

And that book he penned, titled "Saiban Daifunka (The Great Explosion of the Trials)," was placed a less than astronomical 26,041st on Amazon.co.jp's sales ranking as of Friday.

Obviously, Asozan cannot afford to rent his own apartment, so he crashes at friends' places, or stays overnight at manga cafes and train stations. "My favorite is Shinjuku Station," said Asozan -- who is described in his book's short bio as "a free spirit with no fixed residence" -- without a hint of embarrassment. "It's warm and keeps the wind off."

It was financial concerns that also prompted him to start wearing skirts. "I went shopping for jeans, and realized that skirts were cheaper," said Asozan. For the record, he notes that he has been straight "so far."

"There is really no rule that bars men from wearing skirts. You know, until polo started in the Middle Ages, men apparently wore skirts as well. Plus, since I wear trousers underneath, a skirt is warmer. It's kind of like having a blanket wrapped around you."

So there he is, day in and day out, scurrying from one courtroom to another in search of more excitement, emotion or humor. But now, as a veteran court-watcher, he's raising his standards as well and craves more "depth" in the defendants' stories.

Nowadays, Asozan griped, there are too many "remittance fraud" cases -- those in which perpetrators call their victims, most often the elderly, and trick them into putting money into designated bank accounts. He finds them boring.

"As soon as a young, thuggish-looking guy enters the courtroom, I can tell it's a remittance fraud again," he said last week, after having spent the day sitting in on 11 sessions, ranging from shoplifting and pickpocketing cases to a few remittance frauds.

"Those cases are shallow. There is not much to them other than the fact that the defendants wanted money. For frauds, I would like to hear compelling stories about why on earth the defendants went out of their way to do what they did."

In time, perchance, he'll see such mysteries of human nature revealed before his very own eyes . . .

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