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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
THE ZEIT GIST
Family slams stalled probe into Kabuki-cho death
Questions linger nine months after teenage American tourist was found unconscious in a Shinjuku stairwell
By SIMON SCOTT
Nine months after their only son, Hoon "Scott" Kang, a Korean-American tourist, died from severe head injuries sustained in the stairwell of a building in Kabuki-cho, his family and friends are still no closer to understanding how he died.
Although the Shinjuku police have officially opened an investigation into Scott's death, the family has been told only that the investigation is "not complete."
"Despite strenuous efforts to reach Japanese authority through diplomatic means and a channel in Japan to the Shinjuku police in Tokyo, we have heard nothing about progress in the investigation, and have received no response from the Japanese government," says Kang family spokesman Raymond Wozniak.
In addition to inquiring to the Shinjuku police through an intermediary in Tokyo, the family and supporters have contacted the Japanese Embassy in Washington, the Japanese Consulate General in Atlanta, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, and have even written to President Barack Obama. They have also delivered a petition of 2,500 signatures calling for the Shinjuku police to step up their investigation into Scott's death to the Japanese Embassy in Washington.
Wozniak believes this lack of official response by the Japanese authorities is a part of a deliberate strategy of "mokusatsu," or "death by silence."
"The idea is that if you totally ignore something it tends to go away," he explains. "We will not go away. A good American boy was killed in Tokyo under circumstances that here in America would lead to quick arrest of the guilty parties, and all we receive is silence."
Nineteen-year-old Scott Kang was found lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood in the early hours of Aug. 26, 2010, in the sixth-floor stairwell of Collins Building 15, an eight-story high-rise of small hostess bars and clubs located near Shinjuku City Hall in Kabuki-cho. He remained in a coma for five days before dying of his injuries, his mother by his side, at the Kokuritsu Kokusai Iryo Kenkyu Center in Shinjuku on Aug. 30.
Scott had earned a scholarship to study business at New York University, but that only covered tuition costs. To earn money to live on while at university and discover his roots, Scott took a year off to work as an English teacher in Wonju, South Korea.
In late August, he decided to join two fellow teachers, also young Korean-American men, on a weeklong holiday to explore Japan. Scott's parents, Sung and Giyeon Kang, were naturally nervous about their teenage son going to Tokyo, but were reassured when he told them his friend's guardian, Min Sook Lee, lived in the city, and that they could call her if they got into trouble.
When Lee called Scott's home in Buford, Georgia, and told his father that his son only had one or two days to live, he couldn't believe what he was hearing. The Kangs immediately left for Tokyo, clinging to the hope they would get to see their son before he passed away. They arrived on the 29th, the day before he died.
Scott's father, Sung Kang, had heard it was possible for comatose people to understand what is said to them, if spoken to loudly.
"I wanted my son to hear my voice. I said: 'Daddy has come to see you. Pray to God and tell him you want to live.' "
Scott's eyes were dry when his father and mother arrived at the hospital, but after they talked to him for an hour he started to cry. The same thing happened the following day when his mother spoke to him.
The lives of the Kang family will never be the same. "Today I was driving alone and started thinking about Scott, and I cried and cried," his father said in a recent interview. "I never talk to my wife about my son, because she is just so sad about it."
Scott was cremated in Japan and his ashes were taken to Wonju, Sung Kang's ancestral home near Seoul. That provided some relief, but the family is far from reaching closure. They are unhappy with the way the Shinjuku police have dealt with the case, and believe there are major inconsistencies in the police theories about how and why Scott died.
The official cause — bleeding in the brain from severe head trauma — is clear. However, the circumstances leading up to the incident that killed him remain in dispute.
According to Scott's two friends, the three of them had been drinking in a hostess bar somewhere in Kabuki-cho. Scott left at around 10:30 p.m., saying he was going for a walk and would be back in around half an hour. He never came back, and his friends eventually returned to the hotel without him.
Video footage from the security camera in the elevator of Collins Building 15, which shows Scott entering from the first floor just after 11 p.m., has become the center of the controversy surrounding Scott's case.
Wozniak says he and Scott's father viewed the video footage at least 20 times at Shinjuku Police Station. They are convinced the video indicates foul play. According to Wozniak, the footage shows Scott entering the elevator from the first floor, followed by two men.
He says the Shinjuku police later informed them — after repeated requests — that the two were a large-framed 44-year-old Filipino tout and entertainer for The Masquerade, a gay bar in the building's basement, and his shorter, 22-year-old Japanese assistant.
Once inside, the Filipino man pushes the button and the elevator begins to rise to the eighth floor.
After the elevator starts moving, the Japanese assistant pushes the button to stop on the sixth floor. He gets out there, leaving Scott alone with the tout.
Wozniak says the Filipino — whom he calls "the suspect" — proceeds to threaten Scott by holding both his fists in front of his face. Scott responds by holding up his hands in a "gesture of surrender." The man then grabs Scott's wrist, a move Wozniak interprets as a control gesture, although he acknowledges Scott was drunk and swaying.
"Most damning of all, the suspect's right shoulder moves forward to deliver a rabbit punch to Scott's midsection," Wozniak says. "Scott doubles over, and in several images his face shows him to be in clear and severe pain."
Scott leaves the elevator on the eighth floor; the Filipino man follows.
The official interpretation of the video footage is in stark contrast to that of Wozniak and the Kang family. The police told them they believe the Filipino man's movements in the elevator weren't violent or threatening, but in fact indicators of a homosexual encounter.
Allegedly, a Shinjuku police officer told Scott's father that his son's pained facial expression, which his family believes was caused by a blow, was in fact Scott attempting to kiss the man.
Similarly, the police and Kang family interpretations differ when it comes to hand contact between the men.
"Much was made by the police of Scott allegedly 'holding hands' with the suspect in a one-second scene in the elevator camera," Wozniak reports. "Upon repeated and close inspection (of the scene), the suspect is clearly seen to grasp Scott by the left wrist, his right thumb under Scott's left thumb, a clear control move and in no way a holding of hands."
Wozniak and the Kang family strongly dispute any suggestions that Scott may have been homosexual. Wozniak, who is also a Sunday school teacher, says he knew Scott since he was young and had counseled him on many occasions, but never got any indication that he was gay. He added that Scott's two Tokyo traveling companions also attest to this, and told Wozniak the three went to Kabuki-cho in the hope of meeting pretty Japanese girls.
No one can say for sure what happened once Scott and the Filipino man left the elevator, but what is indisputable is that Scott was found three hours later in a coma. And unless other witnesses appear, the Filipino man remains the last person to see Scott alive.
The police theory — at least as it was told to Scott's father, Wozniak and Lee — is that Scott's death was simply a result of a drunken fall, and that the Filipino man in the elevator was not present when it occurred.
Scott appeared visibly drunk and swaying on the security camera video. His blood alcohol level — 0.273 percent — was exceedingly high, especially for someone not known as a heavy drinker. Levels of 0.3 to 0.4 percent normally result in stupor and unconsciousness; above that figure, death by alcohol poisoning is not uncommon.
The police told the Kang family that Scott's level of intoxication, physical evidence from the crime scene, the nature of the injuries he sustained, along with the statement the Filipino entertainer gave, all point to his death being an accident.
In his statement to the police, the Filipino said that Scott had wanted to go out on to the roof, probably with the intention of jumping, and he had followed Scott out onto the eighth floor stairwell to stop him and to persuade him to come back into the building.
He said Scott was unable to go onto the roof because the access door was locked. After he failed to persuade him to come back inside, the Filipino eventually gave up and left Scott to his own devices.
Wozniak believes the suggestion that Scott was out of control and suicidal doesn't fit with his history or character.
"Scott Kang was not in the least self-destructive. He had no history of suicidal talk or behavior and in fact had everything to live for," he says. "His future was bright. He wanted to be a lawyer and enter government service. He was socially active."
In addition, Wozniak says the theory that Scott was trying to get to the roof and the Filipino man was trying to stop him is not supported by the elevator video footage.
"If this were so, why does the suspect hit the button taking Scott to the eighth-floor landing, where no one can hear you scream, and where Scott's blood appears?"
The Kang family and their supporters categorically reject the police's version of events and are convinced Scott's death was deliberate.
"I think absolutely my son was murdered," Sung Kang says. "I feel very angry."
They also believe that the physical evidence from the scene doesn't fit the police explanation. In particular, they dispute the police theory that the injuries to Scott's head that proved fatal — namely "a .05 cm by 1 cm hole in the left rear of his head, three radiating fractures, two 8.5 cm in length" — could all have been caused by his head striking a door hinge in the sixth-floor stairwell.
"Both the middle and lower hinges on the sixth floor landing where they theorize Scott hit his head hard enough to produce the wounds detailed above had no blood, skin or bone fragments on them," Wozniak says. "The police admitted these flanges were completely clean, so it is difficult to credit that this could have happened as they say."
As well as being frustrated and angry about the lack of progress in the investigation, the Kang family is also unhappy with the attitude the Japanese authorities are taking toward Scott's case, in particular their refusal to release a copy of the elevator security video and autopsy report. They believe the police are stalling and don't want to bring the investigation to a conclusion.
"I think they are hiding some evidence and don't want to open some channels of investigation," Scott's father says. "Because my son was an American, because he was a traveler. When a traveler is killed in Tokyo, (it) is an international issue. They want to me to forget what happened, to get sick and tired and give up."
The Tokyo Metropolitan Police said they were unable to comment on Scott's case because it was an ongoing investigation. Statements in the story about their theories and position on the case did not come directly from the police themselves, but were gathered from the numerous discussions that Sung Kang, Wozniak and Lee had with the police.
This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in No. 1 Shimbun, the magazine of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. Send comments on this issue to firstname.lastname@example.org