Spa (Aug 30 – Sept 6) begins with a disclaimer: “There is no justification for Yamagami’s heinous crime – but,” it adds, “as details of the suspect’s past emerge, an outpouring of sympathy” has overwhelmed revulsion.
Misfortune dogged Tetsuya Yamagami. Born in 1980, he came of age as the bubble economy burst, condemning him and so many others of his generation to a life of poorly-paid, insecure menial labor.
He was four when his father committed suicide. That same year his elder brother lost an eye while in treatment for cancer.
Perhaps it was despair that drew his mother to the Unification Church in 1991. Formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, it was founded in South Korea in 1954 and preaches a mystic salvationist messianic fringe Christianity that may well appeal to people at the end of their tether. Upon joining, Yamagami’s mother turned over to the church the 60 million yen she’d received from her late husband’s life insurance policy.
Subsequent donations seem to have drained the family’s once ample resources, dragging it into deep poverty. Yamagami’s hatred of the church, sown in childhood, festered as he matured. A promising student with no money for college, he thought of being a firefighter instead, only to be disqualified by short sight. What next? A stint in the Maritime Self-Defense Forces. In 2005, age 25, he attempted suicide. Discharged from the MSDF, he qualified as a surveyor but nothing came of it. He drifted from job to job. In 2013 his brother killed himself.
On July 8, he was arrested as a suspect in the murder of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe, he alleged, had political ties with the Unification Church.
A “dark hero,” novelist Akira Tachibana calls him, writing in Spa. Very dark indeed. And yet the internet grapevine buzzes with sympathy, support, understanding and similar tales of the extremes of misery that push many to the very brink of crime, and some past it – a few very far past it.
Yamagami, as Spa notes, seems the victim of just about every social ill there is. There are many. His strongest sympathizers see themselves as fellow victims – of “poison parents;” of religious enthusiasms that deplete family fortunes and leave children of believers penniless; most numerously, of the hiring freeze of the 1990s that spawned a “lost generation” of economic ghosts unable to latch onto anything solid or stable.
“My father became a believer (in New Age Christianity) and quit his job in the civil service,” wrote a man in his 30s in one of various net posts Spa collects. “We had no money. I grew up watching my mother weep helplessly as we sank deeper and deeper into debt.” Counseling, he says, helped him control his rage as he grew older. “I didn’t commit a crime, but if I’d been Yamagami, the need for vengeance might have been too much for me.”
What might he have done? There’s no telling. In 1997 two children were murdered in Kobe. One, a 10-year-old boy, had been beheaded with a chainsaw. An early morning jogger found the head on a sidewalk. In its mouth was a scrawled note that read, “This is the beginning of the game.” The player turned out to be a 14-year-old boy. “A bloody judgment is needed for my years of great bitterness,” he wrote. He signed his name “Seito Sakakibara.”
The source of his bitterness is obscure. Not so that of Tomohiro Kato, executed in July, age 39, for the 2008 “Akihabara Massacre” – seven killed, 10 seriously wounded, the rampage an apparent eruption of rage and frustration over years of social isolation and half-life in the part-time economy.
Kato, “Seito” and Yamagami have points in common – notably keen intelligence thwarted or warped, and birth in the early 1980s. Statistically, Spa observes, their generation is no more crime-prone than any other – but the rage that knows no bounds does seem a distinguishing feature.
The men and women whose online postings Spa passes on are all in their 30s and 40s. They express the agony and anger that seethes beneath the placid surface of everyday life in a modern and wealthy country.
“After graduating I applied to over 50 companies,” wrote a woman in her 40s. “Nothing – I heard back from none of them. Finally I found a job – with a ‘black company,’ take-home pay 150,000 a month. I quit after a few years and went on to day jobs and part-time jobs, constantly struggling to make ends meet. I’m married now, and things are at least stable, if not prosperous. But Yamagami had to struggle alone. It seems to me that the political establishment that abandons people like him, and the society that is indifferent to them – don’t they deserve some of the blame?”
A woman in her 30s wrote: “My family was poor. I started working part-time at 16. Every month my father would snatch my pay and gamble it away. I hated him so much I wanted to kill him. With my family it was gambling, with Yamagami’s it was religion. It’s not the same, but the more we learn about Yamagami’s home environment, the more sympathy I feel for him.”
Like Kato before him, Yamagami posted his angst copiously online. Kato wrote of being friendless and “ugly;” Yamagami of blaming himself for his father’s death. Kato is said to have written (anonymously), “If I only had a girlfriend, I wouldn’t have quit work,” and “I’m lower than trash because at least trash gets recycled.” And Yamagami: “I was four when my father on his hospital bed appealed to me for help and I refused to please my mother. That’s why my father jumped off the hospital roof. I killed my father.”
That’s a heavy burden for a 4-year-old to bear. “Communication strategist” Junko Okamoto, writing in Spa, identifies five “isolations,” and says Yamagami suffered them all – loveless childhood, poverty unrelieved by the social safety net, the hiring freeze that blighted the “lost generation,” and the final two, which more or less merge: the isolation of being a man and the isolation of being Japanese. A Japanese man in trouble, Okamoto says, is supposed to be tough and self-reliant; to swallow his pain and solve his own problems.
One calls for help and no one answers. Perhaps the call is not heard, perhaps heard but not understood, perhaps heard and understood but disdained. There is a breaking point. Few reach it. Some do. Weakness becomes power, and there’s hell to pay.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu.”© Japan Today