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Police advised to rethink motive and opportunity in unsolved Setagaya family murder case

24 Comments
The houses of the Miyazawa family (on right) and Mikio's mother Setsuko, as they appeared in December 2020. Police have continued to patrol the neighborhood, perhaps in expectation the killer might return to the scene of the crime. Photo: M Lupescu

In a patently inauspicious start to the new millennium, Tokyo newspapers on the morning of January 1, 2001 ran front-page headlines about a horrifying fin de siecle crime: the slaying of a family of four in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward two days earlier.

Mid-morning on Dec 31, the bodies of businessman Mikio Miyazawa, age 44; his wife Yasuko (41); daughter Niina (8); and son, Rei(6) were found by Miyazawa's mother, who lived in an adjoining house beside the Sengawa River, with no nearby neighbors.

The killer was believed to have entered through the upstairs bathroom window. After strangling Rei in his bed, police determined he used a fish knife he had brought with him to stab the other three family members to death.

Rather than flee under cover of darkness, the killer then inexplicably lingered at the crime scene well past sunrise. According to police, he surfed the web on Miyazawa's computer, raided the refrigerator for a snack and used the toilet, not bothering to flush afterward.

Based on evidence at the crime scene, the suspect was a young male in his late teens or early 20s, of slender build and medium height. He left behind his fingerprints, DNA, shoe prints, and personal items. Police were confident this wealth of forensic and material evidence would enable them to track down the culprit in short order.

The killer's DNA turned out to be particularly unusual as he appeared to have European ancestry on his mother's side. Other DNA markers suggested a possible link to either China or Korea. In the folds of a carrying pouch he left behind were grains of sand of a type not found in Japan.

Some have theorized that a person of foreign origin might have less compunction to killing members of a different racial or ethnic group, but unless more facts are known, such a theory can be no more than speculation.

Taiyo Publishing's latest "mook" from its "Strange Stories of the Showa Era" series focuses on several major unsolved crimes. Writer Nobuhiro Motohashi reviews the incident in Setagaya that continues to stymie investigators.

"Various persuasive explanations have been suggested, but that does not make any of them correct," Motohashi remarks.

To this day, the killer's motive remains elusive. Was it robbery? Investigators haven't ruled out that the killer might have stolen money from the Miyazawa home, but if so, the amount taken was not determined.

If the killer was economically deprived, perhaps some dispute over money with either Mikio or Yasuko Miyazawa may have moved him to seek revenge.

"Among some criminals, the sense of self-victimhood from being economically deprived can inspire homicidal rage," writes Motohashi, who believes police investigators ought to change their focus to probe the money angle.

The Miyazawa home in Kami-Soshigaya, Motohashi pointed out, is not far from Seijo, a well-to-do residential area with many spacious homes. For this reason, investigators may have mistakenly assumed that since the victims' house was only average in appearance, it did not appear affluent enough to be targeted by a robber.

"But thieves," Motohashi contends, "prefer to target houses that are easy to break into, not necessarily those that appear wealthy."

In several previous criminal cases, robbers who committed acts of violence later confessed that their initial motive had only been theft. One notable example occurred in August 2002, when the wife and daughter of Takaichi Mabuchi, president of Mabuchi Motors, were strangled to death by home intruders in Matsudo City. The killers made off with hundreds of thousands of yen in cash and jewelry, and before fleeing set fire to the house.

The Mabuchi incident misled investigators, who initially hypothesized that the killers were motivated by a deep personal grudge against Mabuchi. As it turned out, however, the two culprits, who had met in prison, admitted they killed their victims to eliminate eyewitnesses. Both men received death sentences.

"Since the crime experts who analyze the Miyazawa case enjoy above-average economic status themselves, they may not be capable of fully grasping the psychology of a desperately needy person reacting on the spur of moment," Motohashi writes.

In the late night hours of December 30, 2000, a young man of undetermined nationality stealthily broke into a family's home in Setagaya and mercilessly killed its four inhabitants. While Japan has no statute of limitations on homicide, 22 years on, the prospects of the Miyazawas' killer ever being brought to justice appear increasingly remote.

© Japan Today

©2023 GPlusMedia Inc.

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From the photo caption: Police have continued to patrol the neighborhood, perhaps in expectation the killer might return to the scene of the crime.

Well, now that cat is out of the bag.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

If the killer brought his own knife, it suggests the murder was pre-meditated. I agree with Motohashi's premise that the investigators may have been misled by their own preconceived views. I recall when that 14-year-old schoolboy in Kobe was arrested for the murders of two children back in 1997. No one could believe that someone of such a young age could commit such crimes and elude arrest as long has he did. Unfortunately the only way to know how the Miyazawas' killer managed to slip through the cracks for 22 years is to catch him.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

If it was a "dastardly foreigner" he will be long gone by now....

European ancestry on his mother's side. Other DNA markers suggested a possible link to either China or Korea.

Philippines?

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

The offering of a substantial reward leading to the arrest of the perpetrator is an additional way to help a case.

By substantial I mean at least ¥100 million. Rewards in Japan are quite miserly. Perhaps there is a thinking a "real witness" will come forward out of a sense of justice and not want to be tainted by "blood money".

But human nature being what it is - malleable, can sometimes be lured by fabulous money.

The $1 million reward has been often utilized in Australian murders.

With many there is no positive result and in fact can overload the policing system - but there are also famous cold cases that have been solved. In addition in the cases where the information offered does not directly result in a capture, it sometimes has sent police down other avenues they weren't considering which have showed more light on the cases.

Of course if there are No witnesses or associates of any kind then sadly the truth often dies with the criminal.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Full disclosure, I made a recently-released a 7-part podcast with USG Audio (Universal) regarding this case so I have a somewhat in-depth perspective. It's not my intention to criticise the author of this article, nor Mr. Motohashi. In the podcast (it's called FACELESS) we speak to TMPD personnel involved in the investigation of these murders, as well as various experts. And frankly, there are fundamental errors being recycled and regurgitated down the years in the reportage regarding this case.

"The killer was believed to have entered through the upstairs bathroom window."

False. TMPD are still unsure to this day whether the killer entered through the window -- which had no kind of fibres in it -- or the front door -- which had no bloody footprints. It's a puzzle.

"Rather than flee under cover of darkness, the killer then inexplicably lingered at the crime scene well past sunrise."

False. The only known timestamp we have for the killer's actions are 1:18am-1:23am when he logs on to the computer and then logs off. That's literally the only certain timeframe we have. The idea about him staying until the morning arises out of the "second" activation of the computer but this was caused by the grandmother just before discovering the bodies.

"The killer's DNA turned out to be particularly unusual as he appeared to have European ancestry on his mother's side. Other DNA markers suggested a possible link to either China or Korea."

False. Mitochondrial DNA analysed in the early 2000s simply could not have confirmed one way or another where his mother was from. If she was born in Portugal, that might be a lead. If it's his great grandmother x16 that's born in Portugal, that's worth very little. The TMPD have not published this information on the DNA. There's a reason for that -- it was leaked by an employee of the university where they were seeking a second opinion. Therefore, the killer's DNA suggests ABSOLUTELY NOTHING at this time.

"Some have theorized that a person of foreign origin might have less compunction to killing members of a different racial or ethnic group, but unless more facts are known, such a theory can be no more than speculation."

So, some people are racists? This is neither news nor relevant. "Some" have theorised the moon is made of cheese or that Elvis is still alive.

If the killer was economically deprived, perhaps some dispute over money with either Mikio or Yasuko Miyazawa may have moved him to seek revenge. "Among some criminals, the sense of self-victimhood from being economically deprived can inspire homicidal rage," writes Motohashi, who believes police investigators ought to change their focus to probe the money angle.

So, let me get this straight. The murderer is so angry at being poor, he slaughters an entire family... but leaves behind money in their house?

"But thieves," Motohashi contends, "prefer to target houses that are easy to break into, not necessarily those that appear wealthy."

Why the hell would a thief target a family house at a time when it was obvious the family would be home? The lights were on and it was the holiday period. This makes zero sense.

"Since the crime experts who analyze the Miyazawa case enjoy above-average economic status themselves, they may not be capable of fully grasping the psychology of a desperately needy person reacting on the spur of moment," Motohashi writes.

With all due respect to Mr. Motohashi, I've spoken personally to some of those involved in the investigation of the case and I don't think their "economic status" in any way affected this case. And frankly, the idea of someone being so poor they end up slaughtering an entire family is among the more stupid theories I've heard.

10 ( +10 / -0 )

The house was probably targeted because of its distance from close neighbours.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Nicholas

Interesting info that seems to undermine most of what the Japanese media has been reporting over the past quarter century. I agree that a lot of the theories put forward by Japanese experts are jaw droppingly dumb, if not offensive.

My 2 cents says it was likely one of the skateboarders the husband argued with outside his home. If the killer entered by a second floor window, he would need to be athletic and young. Skateboarding attracts its fair share of social outcasts, especially back in 2000 when it was more underground than now. If you're an angry outsider with a foreign background, then skateboarders would be among the few circles that would accept you. The guy had sociopathetic tendencies and was seeking violent revenge. The holiday time of year probably contributed, when the lonely feel especially lonely and even aggrieved.

Can't believe the experts are going on about a robbery motive.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Niclolas84....

Very interesting. Thank you.

I will check out your podcast.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Takes cold hearted murderer to kill a young kid.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I don't know the original source of data about the killer's DNA, but they were extremely detailed, suggesting the killer's mother was probably part Albanian, and that a marker for a certain haplogroup occurred much more frequently among Chinese and Koreans than among Japanese. Once writer went so far as to suggest that based on the DNA data, the killer's European ancestry would be apparent from his facial features.

The offering of monetary rewards for information leading to an arrest is certainly a good idea, but the trail is probably too cold now. The killer would be in his early 40s. To date, neither his fingerprints nor his nor any of his close relative's DNA has been flagged by any police agency. And he was very generous in leaving behind evidence -- almost like he wanted to get caught.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Nicolas84 - some of the more interesting insight into the case I've read.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Nicolas84 Will definitely be giving your podcasts a listen!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@Nicholas84, are you any relation to the author of Blue Light Yokohama? I read it on my Kindle shortly after it came out. The author said he was inspired by an article that ran here in Japan Today.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@JeffLee, I thought the same about the skateboarder but then an angry, outsider with a foreign background would be easy to find. Just ask a few of the other skateboarders - pretty sure none would be willing to hide a guy who killed a family. The police must at least know who the guys the family had an altercation with or at least know if one of them was foreign looking.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

@Nicolas84 Just binge listened to your podcasts. Highly recommend!

@browny1 The reward being offered is 20 million yen.

@NCIS Reruns Yes, it's the same person.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Thank you Mountainpear / Browny1 / everyone for the kind comments and to those tuning in to my podcast. Very much appreciated. To those listening, if you have any questions please feel free to reach out. I'm on Twitter, or my email is out there. Taking all your points in turn:

@JeffLee: I don't necessarily blame the Japanese media for the recycling of errors, I know it's the way of things. But frankly, I think there are a shocking amount of misconceptions regarding this case out there. That stands to reason, across 22 years, theories are updated, goalposts shift. But it seems as if the reportage has not. When was the last time a major newspaper grilled the TMPD on where this investigation stands? The Australian outfit ABC did a great article on the case two years ago, for example.

As for the skaters dispute theory, it's certainly possible, but at the same time, having spoken to skaters who say they recall Mr. Miyazawa asking them to keep it down (respectfully), I'm not sure I buy this is enough of a reason to slaughter an entire family. That said, one can never know. Sometimes you say the wrong thing to the wrong guy. But the TMPD have gone after skaters hard for 22 years and zip. The ones we spoke to all said the same thing -- they wanted the names of OTHER skaters. Essentially, expanding the circle of skaters until they chance upon the right guy. Well two decades later, they hasn't happened.

And in terms of the killer being 'foreign' in ANY way, there is ZERO evidence for this. Mitochondrial DNA analysed 22 years ago would've told the cops jack s**t about what the killer looked like. If his grandmother going back 700 years was from Spain, the killer would just look Japanese today. If the killer IS foreign, then the TMPD are saying nothing about it. Why would that be the case? There simply isn't any solid evidence. And your final point, I absolutely agree. The killer's motive was NOT robbery. If it was, why would he leave some cash prominently displayed by a computer he used for several minutes? And as a criminal psychologist says in my podcast, robbers don't target houses in this way, at this time, nor with a knife, nor immediately begin strangling a child.

@NCIS Reruns: I spoke to one of the world's foremost experts in DNA and she simply did not accept that the tech existed 22 years ago for ANYBODY to be sure about the killer's ancestry to the point of talking about nations. And as we discovered in the production of the podcast, the information about the killer's "mediterranean" mother was actually leaked by a university employee. The TMPD formally asked wikipedia to take down this information but the website refused. The point being, while it's possible TODAY to take the killer's DNA and form a facial composite (the lab we spoke to in the podcast that does this is called Parabon Nanolabs), 1. this was definitely not the case in 2000 and 2) there is NO existing legal framework in Japan, as I understand it, that would allow for this. The same for familial DNA investigations such as the Golden State Killer etc. That's why ex-chief Tsuchita is lobbying to make changes in the law on this front.

As for the killer, it's always been a disconnect that he can be so careless during the murders inside the house but the second he walks outside, he becomes Jason Bourne and disappears forever. So either he's dead, or he simply left the country the day after. It is possible he's living on a mountain or an island somewhere in Japan but I find that hard to believe. And yes, I did write Blue Light Yokohama. (Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed!) Originally, I wanted to do a non-fiction deep dive into the Miyazawa case but I just didn't have the resources back then (I was only 29). But as soon as I managed to establish myself as an author, I was able to return to the family with more of a platform. I always felt like I owed them this.

@Daninthepan: I agree with you, if the police have combed the skating community for 22 years and got nothing, I think it's a safe bet the killer didn't move amongst them. But of the items he was wearing, many of them were available in Ogikubo which is nearby the house. Given that some of his clothing was actually pretty distinctive, it's almost hard to believe that there was zero CCTV at the stores or stations or any connections made with the purchases. Surely, a male able to do this had some kind of record or history of problematic behaviour somewhere else...?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

This makes zero sense.

Zero sense to whom? Did his actions make sense to the murderer? Maybe yes or maybe no.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Anonymous

It makes zero sense to me. Which is why I said it. Mr. Motohashi's contention is that "thieves prefer to target houses that are easy to break into..."

Now ignoring the assumption that the assailant was there to steal in the first place and not kill, what single element about the Miyazawa's house made it an easy target? And if it were the assailant's intention only to steal and not kill, then as stated, it makes zero sense that he would target the house at a time when it's almost certain the family would be home.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Now that I think of it, the timing of the crime is interesting. Because so many people are out and about during the year-end and new year's period, burglaries do tend to increase during this time of year, and police in some areas increase patrols in residential neighborhoods. If the killer had been aware of this he might have factored it into his plan, because the Miyazawa's house was unusually isolated, with no immediate neighbors. (And I have been there to see it.)

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Based on evidence at the crime scene, the suspect was a young male in his late teens or early 20s, of slender build and medium height. He left behind his fingerprints, DNA, shoe prints, and personal items. Police were confident this wealth of forensic and material evidence would enable them to track down the culprit in short order.

moral to the story don’t expect the solving of a case by the keystone cops in Japan unless the perpetrator gives themselves up and admits to the crime!

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

@mountainpear - thanks for the info re the reward money of 20million yen.

That's why I suggested a far greater amount be put up - at least 100 mill. Maybe work. Maybe not?

@Nicolas84 - thanks for the extra bits.

Has there ever been much deep research into the killer being local as in quite local?

And I assume the killer being known to the family line, has been thoroughly investigated, but there always seems to be indications that the perpetrator knew things such as the layout of the house, occupants etc.

Any further light to throw on these points.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Browny1: In terms of the killer being local, there is one theory that he was a local yakiniku chef or some such living nearby. A regular of that restaurant reported him with a bandaged hand the very next day and he'd been suspected of burglary before. How much weight that holds, I don't know. But certainly, if the police are looking for him, the major news outlets haven't reported on it (you can find the story if you google it, from memory it was in some kind of magazine).

What we DO know is that most of the items on his body or that he brought with him to the house were available locally in Ogikubo. It's thought that the Miyazawa family used to frequent the area so maybe it's possible that's where he first saw them. For starters, there was an M/X store there where he bought his shirt which I believe was only purchased a further 9 times in all of Tokyo. Perhaps it's just coincidence that most of the articles were available in Ogikubo but again, after 22 years, we're left with clutching at straws.

In terms of him being known to the family, given the TMPD have put SO many personnel on the case, you would have to assume they would have uncovered a personal connection between killer and victims by now. Of course, if he wasn't known to them, the level of violence is hard to understand. But if the killer wasn't mentally sound then of course it would be hard to understand.

As for the layout of the house, I'm yet to see any evidence he knew it before he entered. It's possible he knew a little from watching from the outside, but there isn't any solid evidence of him knowing the house other than the fact he seemingly makes himself comfortable. One possible clue here is that he murders Rei first. I've never understood why he would go for the boy first who is most likely the least threat. The answer here could've simply been that he opened the first door he came to (assuming he did in fact enter through the bathroom window which nobody knows for sure).

@NCIS Reruns: I've often wondered if the date held some significance. 22 years on, without even a clear motive, we're left only with speculation. It's also hard to ignore the relative isolation of the house. By Tokyo standards, anyhow. The problem is with the isolation, is that we know there were four people living next door, AS WELL AS neighbours directly across from the house. The former are often mentioned by the press, though it's usually only the maternal grandmother who's mentioned, or An Irie. Also present were her husband and son. They all say they only heard one bang in the night around 11pm (later determined to be the folding ladder up to the attic being banged back into place). No screams, however. And then the latter group of neighbours who, as I say, were living directly across from the Miyazawas. They had nothing to report as I understand it.

But the point is, even if it is an isolated house, there are at least 6 people there he had to slip by and make no sounds for. It's almost hard to believe he got that lucky.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@Nicolas84

I just finished listening to your podcast over a period of two days to and from work. As each theory was covered I kept having the following thoughts repeat in my head about the case. Some of these may be repats of points raised but these are the thoughts I had.

1) The killer was young and/or this was there first criminal offence of any kind. They left a mountain of clues & evidence at the scene. If it wasn't due to incompetence, it was due to the fact they WANTED to be caught? Hence the reason for possibly* remaining at the scene for a while.

2) The killer was a foreigner.

3) The motive was indeed cold blooded opportunistic murder and NOT a burglary. A burglar would have immediately fled the scene and also taken as many valuable items as possible.

4) How much can we trust what the police have said about the use of the suspects DNA? Do we even know if they routinely check the profile against the database as other criminals get added to it. Is the system setup in such a way it will automatically generate a hit if a matching profile is added?

5) Why was there 0 CCTV footage anywhere mentioned? Was there simply no cameras?

6) If the suspect did not enter through the bathroom window , how did they enter the home and where any other entry points determined as being possible?

It just seems to me there is so many unanswered questions and/or facts I don't yet understand. Despite the fact there is a massive amount of evidence, it is still unclear to what end this evidence was used.

There was also one final perplexing point, you often mentioned the case as being one of constant contradiction, where one piece of evidence disproves another. A wild thought I had is the killer intently left random items at the home to miss-direct the police (throw them off the sent). This however doesn't explain the lack of gloves (fingerprints being left) . Why would you enter a home without gloves if you didn't want too be caught. The most boring explanation is this is a completely random opportunistic killer who had no idea what they were doing.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@AnonAussie: Thanks for listening to the podcast, here's hoping you enjoyed it. Taking your points in turn:

1) We actually have zero solid evidence of the killer's age. The TMPD are seemingly basing this on the clothes he was wearing and the fact that there's some kind of highlighter pen trace in his bag suggesting a student lifestyle. But then again, anyone can wear baggy clothes and own a highlighter. As there aren't thousands of experienced serial killers running around in Japan 22 years ago, it's reasonable to conclude that an inexperienced murderer isn't necessarily the byproduct of youth, either. Most people haven't slaughtered an entire a family, the list of people walking around Tokyo who could've pulled that off seamlessly is probably pretty short. Safe to safe our suspect wasn't one of them -- because I agree, there are just so many things here that don't make sense. But as to whether or not he wanted to be caught? Well, he left before the police showed up and hasn't turned himself in so he clearly didn't want to be caught that much. We simply don't know.

2) If the killer is a foreigner, there is zero evidence to point to that. There's there sand potentially from Southern California but again, anyone could get on a plane (whether or not the sand is specifically from a US airforce base but I won't re-litigate the points in the podcast on this). Beyond that, MAYBE some shoes that came from Korea. Though there's nothing to say they didn't come from Los Angeles or London or Lagos. And even the TMPD guys on the scene the day after the murders didn't know if it was the size that wasn't available in Japan or a half size down which was widely available in Japan. So, basically, the shoes tell us zip. (He took them with him after all and the cops are going off footprints which isn't an exact science). As for the killer's DNA, again, it tells us nothing concrete.

3) Totally agree. And if it was a burglar, how terrible would he have to be at his job to strike when it's pretty obvious that a family home is going to be occupied by a family?

4) I can't say for sure what the TMPD have and haven't done as far as DNA testing goes. But after so many years and thousands of personnel on the case, I think it's pretty obvious they would have checked and re-checked the offender's database. As former Chief Tsuchita says, there's even a court order that tests the fingerprints of unidentified dead males that turn up to this day in case it's the killer in this case. I'm assuming there would be some kind of alert system if a new DNA profile is added to the database which pings with these murders. That's how it is in the UK, at least. And that's been in place for years now.

5) There was some CCTV, I can tell you that with certainty. How much, I have no idea. But up until very recently, the TMPD has been going over it. I think, if I'm not mistaken, connected to the supermarket nearby where they sold knives like the one used in the murders. But this was 22 years ago -- how prevalent was CCTV around Soshigaya Park? From the sounds of it, not very.

6) The way the killer entered and exited the house is still up for debate, there are no clear answers. There is no blood by the front door which seems to tell us he didn't walk out that way (given he would've been covered in it). But then there are no fibres in the window up in the bathroom which begs the question -- how did anybody get in or out given its tricky angle and small size. I don't think the killer ever entered the garage so that leaves a balcony which I think I'm right in saying gives on to the landing next to the children's bedroom. But that never seems to be discussed anywhere so I'm assuming that's for a reason.

As for your final point about the killer staging the scene. It's very possible -- this again wouldn't take a criminal mastermind. And it's compatible with a situation that gets out of hand. Maybe he panicked and halfheartedly tried to make it look like a robbery. But even then, if he's staging -- the risks involved with staying behind in the case are ludicrous. Plus what kind of robber would defecate in the toilet without flushing? What kind of staging is that? As you say, why leave his own fingerprints there? Why eat their food and log on to their computer? Why take only some of their money and not all -- as a robber would do? Plus he bleed everywhere. Surely, he would've known that even if he was trying to make this look like a robbery, his own evidence was everywhere.

There are a few other important elements to this case but I'd rather not get into them in public. Seeing as you've got these questions swirling around your head (I feel your pain), you can reach me on Twitter @NicObregon / my email -- just google Nicolas Obregon and you'll find it on my website.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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