Who faces Japan’s hangman — and why

Opinions - March 16th, 2001
Henry Scott Stokes

by Henry Scott Stokes

Today, as I write, upwards of 50 people are waiting on death row in Japan. They do not know when the hangman will come for them. I was unaware of these facts—until I attended a meeting at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club the other day, addressed by Gunnar Jansson, chairman of the human rights committee of the Council of Europe.

In effect, as he pointed out, “torture” is being systematically practiced—with the approval of the 80 percent of the population that supports the death penalty. The explanation of this is that most Japanese have no idea how capital punishment works in practice. They see no photos of the place of execution. They are as ignorant as I was until I sat down at that meet­ing.

This is a roundabout way of introducing a remarkable book that I spotted in our FCCJ library recently: Philippe Pons’ monu­mental 500-page work Misere et crime au Japon. It was published by Gallimard in Paris late in 2000. The book represents “ten years of work” according to the author— he is Le Monde’s correspondent in Tokyo. In his book Philippe covers developments in Japan from the 17th century to this day. It is a remarkable work. Every line has the ring of the author’s voice, I can testify, as one who has known him for decades.

What is it about the subject that sustained Philippe Pons over such a long period of concentra­tion?

I suggest that an explanation is not too hard to find: misery and crime is on all sides of us. If we shield our eyes from these phenomena, very well. But the horrors thereof shriek to the high halls of heaven.

Let me mention a second work I came across, also dealing with the subject of crime in Japan. It is Confessions of a Yakuza. The author is Junichi Saga, a medical doctor by profession. His book is based on the revelations of a patient who confided in him. The publisher is Kodansha, the transla­tor is the exemplary John Bester. If you want a passport to Hades, here you are. Recently, a paperback edi­tion of this work has appeared. It was originally published in Japanese by Chikuma Shobo in 1989 under the title Asakusa Bakuta Ichidai. A Dostoevsky is needed to provide full justice to the material. Mr. Saga has chronicled a tale.

Possibly, it is not too early to face the fact: the criminal world reaches all about us, moving limitlessly and seamlessly around our lives, as we sit in buses or take the subway. Some gang members chose to identify themselves to us by their frizzy hairdos, their loud manners, their way of standing on a street corner. The majority slink by, going about their business.

The scale of the underworld has never, to my knowledge, been pursued in much detail until this new work by Philippe Pons appeared. Yet even he appears to me to understate the magnitude of the beast. Thus, I looked in his work for details of the case of Juzo Itami, the movie director. Philippe records—there is a footnote on page 424—that Itami-san was “the victim of an attack in May 1992.” But he says nothing, unless I have missed another reference, about the background to this assault on a talented Japanese cineaste, Itami, by mobsters. A few years later this witty iconoclast committed sui­cide, apparently for personal rea­sons.

Let’s take a step back here. For decades, academic works on Japan have maintained that this country is run by an “iron triangle” consist­ing of the civil servants, the busi­ness community and the politi­cians. This model has stood the test of time—it certainly has some validity. But there is another trian­gle of power—one that Mr. Itami showed in his film “Minbo no Onna” for example. This second triangle is composed of the real estate tycoons, the arch-bossmen conservative politicians like pre­mier Mr. Mori—and the yakuza.

The odd thing is how the media skate over what goes on:

  • Many a hotel in this country, it is widely believed if never proven, reached an accommoda­tion with the gangs. This means paying out protection money in cash or in kind, directly or indi­rectly—let us not quibble about the exact manner and means, and just call it money.
  • Ditto for the department stores. They too have businesses to keep running, day by day. Goods for sale have to arrive on time. Trucks have got to come in. There are schedules to keep. Once again, protection is ensured by shelling out monies, or so I assume.
  • Protection deals are struck at a high level, the very highest in terms of rank. I came to under­stand this, years ago, on a day when the head of one of Japan’s largest department stores (no names here) invited me to a small lunch party to introduce none other than Yoshio Kodama, the late head of the underworld—a gracious, quiet man in his 70s by that time, with a grey shaven head.

As most of us know, the police are powerless or, should I say, irrel­evant in many situations. The last thing a general manager or a presi­dent of a hotel or of a department store wants to do is to call in the police. They have to manage on their own. That is what they are paid salaries for: to make things run. Meanwhile, the media does not rock the boat Let me give an example: not long ago Forbes magazine carried a story on the apparent murder of a banker visit­ing Osaka, duly dressed up as a sui­cide. The piece noted that the police and the hotel preferred to let the case blow over—with the implicit support of the media.

Investigative reporting is not a forte around here, either in the Japanese press or among the hand­ful of overworked foreign correspondents. My sense is that we have a grand total of one investiga­tive reporter in the foreign press here—namely Ben Fulford of Forbes magazine. The rest of us, basically, don’t have that much time. It takes a case like the recent Blackman story to arouse foreign media attention—briefly and spasmodically—to misery and crime in Japan.

So who ends up on death row? Ordinary human beings, mostly, who fall into violent crime, with­out a plan. My hunch is that it is not the yakuza—or only the small­est of small fry—who swing.