The Japanese legal system is being forced to reconsider how it handles children who kill.
By Matthew Hernon
A bright young boy who enjoyed playing baseball, making plastic models and doing jigsaws, Satoshi Takamatsu appeared to have a bright future ahead of him. Tragically, though, at the age of just 15 his life was cut short after he was tortured and savagely beaten to death. The ten boys who committed the crime then casually went off to sing at a karaoke booth. That was back in 1997; yet, for his mother Yumiko Takamatsu the pain and anger remains.
“Satoshi was such a friendly young lad,” she tells Weekender. “He was devoted to his family and had so many friends. Some of those involved in the incident were supposed to be his pals. I can never forgive them for what they did. Even after they came out of the juveline training school I felt they never showed any real remorse. Eight of them were sentenced to 20 months while the other two were given 15 months. It was too short.”
The same year Satoshi was killed, a 14-year-old boy who called himself Seito Sakakibara (his real name has never been revealed) was arrested for the murder of Ayaka Yamashita, aged 10 and Jun Hase, aged 11. The latter’s head was discovered in front of the school gates. A note was found in his mouth that read, “This is the beginning of the game … Try to stop me if you can you stupid police … I desperately want to see people die; it’s a thrill for me to commit murder. A bloody judgment is needed for my years of great bitterness.”
Despite the horrific nature of the crime Sakakibara was released after spending less than eight years in a medical reformatory for juveniles. Another boy who hijacked a bus in Fukuoka in 2000—killing one of the passengers—was freed from the medical reformatory within six years. Also in 2000, 16-year-old Yukio Yamaji was arrested for matricide, but was paroled after just three years. He went on to rape and murder two sisters. Teens were committing abhorrent acts, but the punishment never seemed to match the crime. Family members of victims, including Yumiko Yamashita, urged the government to act, demanding revisions to the Juvenile Act which had been in place since 1948.
The first modification came in 2000 when the punishable age for a crime was reduced from 16 to 14. Six years later it was decided that children from the age of 12 could be sent to juvenile training schools. Adversary proceedings in Juvenile Courts also became more open, with victims’ families being given permission to attend court hearings, while prosecutors were effectively handed more power. The latest amendment came last year when the Diet enabled a law extending the maximum limit a minor under the age of 20, who was being tried in an adult court, could serve in prison. It was raised from 15 to 20 years for crimes punishable by life in prison and from 10 to 15 years for less severe offenses.
These changes have largely been welcomed by the general public; however, there are many that feel they still haven’t gone far enough. According to a nationwide survey conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun in March of this year, 83% of the respondents said that 18 rather than 20 would be a more appropriate age at which to try criminals as adults. The poll took place shortly after the brutal murder of 13-year-old Ryota Uemura by three teens in Kawasaki which angered many and could have, therefore, affected their answers. (The Family Court judge decided in May that the perpetrators of this crime will face trial in adult criminal court, though this wouldn’t have been known at the time of the survey).
Another factor which is likely to have impacted on the survey results is the lowering of the voting age in Japan from 20 to 18, which is expected to be confirmed next year. A lot of people believe that if you’re old enough to have a say in who governs this country then you are also old enough to be seen as an adult in the eyes of the law. This is not an opinion shared by Hiroko Goto—a professor of Law at Chiba University.
“Lowering the voting age is a positive step that will expand the electorate, but I don’t think it should have any impact on the Juvenile Act,” she tells Weekender. “Minors, that is to say people under the age of 20, are fundamentally different to adults as their brains are not fully developed. Sending them to an adult prison would only make matters worse. In most cases involving children, crimes are committed because of problems at home. Family courts try to discover what that problem is in order to prevent further offenses. In extreme cases, such as the killing of Ryota Uemura, juveniles can be referred to adult criminal courts.
“More often than not, though, teenagers that are found guilty are sent to juvenile training schools where they are taught how to behave properly. An emphasis is placed on education and rehabilitation. Upon entering many think that violence is the only way to solve a problem. Some don’t even know how to brush their own teeth. At these institutions they can learn all kinds of skills that will help them when they get out, like how to write a resume or operate a forklift truck. Of course I realize the families of victims don’t care about any of this. They just want retribution. I believe it is important to consider both sides.”
She makes a rational argument that is backed up by statistics. In 2013 the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders in Japan was 34.3%: more than 10% lower than that of adult offenders here and a much smaller number than in many Western countries. Also the arrest rate of minors has more than halved over the past decade, falling to below 100,000 a year. Mariko Fujiwara—a research director at Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living—feels those statistics would be even lower if more teens were tried as adults.
“I think it would make more of them think before they acted,” she says. “Crimes committed by juveniles are often premeditated. Occasionally they will be tried as adults, but in most cases they know they will avoid that and effectively get away with it. You then also have gang members using teens to carry out vicious acts for them because they will avoid prison. Lowering the age at which a criminal can be tried as an adult would, in my view, encourage more youngsters to stay away from violence.”
For bereaved family members it is about more than reducing crimes rates and recidivism in the future—their main goal is to get justice for innocent children who have needlessly lost their lives. Yumiko Takamatsu believes the only way that can be accomplished is by punishing criminals based on the severity of their actions and not their age. “Lengthier sentences,” she says “would give serious offenders more time to think deeply about what they’ve done.” In her eyes the boys responsible for Satoshi’s death were released far too soon, but she’s hopeful that as they get older they will at least show some repentance for their actions. “They come to pray on the anniversary of his death every year. Most of them are married now and some have kids. As they become parents themselves maybe they’ll have a greater understanding of what I went through. I want to continue monitoring their progress.”
She also feels greater assistance should be given to family members who’ve lost loved ones as a result of a crime. Wanting to help after the death of her own son, she became a board member of the Hyogo Victims Support Center in 2002. “The most important thing is just to be there for those people who are suffering—listening to their story,” she says. “When someone so close to you has been murdered it’s easy to lose faith in humanity: we want to help restore that faith. I’ve been volunteering for a number of years and I’ve always felt that Satoshi has been right there with me as I’ve been doing it.”