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Motorcyclist campaigns to keep his family’s killer behind bars

By Andy Sharp

The events of May 27, 2005, are likely to haunt Alberto Stucki forever.

“It was the night before we were going to move to Chiba, and we were very tired because we’d been packing all day,” says Stucki, a 53-year-old Swiss-Italian who has lived in Japan for 33 years. “I went to bed first, at about 11:30pm, and my daughter came about 10 minutes later to say goodnight. Then I woke to hear my wife shouting ‘Alberto, fire!’ It was too late… The only thing I could do was jump out of the window. I still don’t know if I could’ve done something. That makes me sick every night. I have the worst nightmares every day.”

The blaze at Stucki’s home in Miyazaki claimed the lives of his wife, Kimiko, 46, and his younger daughter, Yurie, 12. It wasn’t until later that he learned this tragedy was no accident. The fire was set by a 37-year-old serial arsonist named Yuji Takeyama, who, according to Stucki, had been in custody eight times previously and went on to attempt three similar crimes. Even after his arrest, the killer showed no remorse.

“The son of a bitch just stood and watched my house burn down,” Stucki says. “He was there, watching in the crowd. I got a letter [from Takeyama]. He said he planned one month previously to steal from my house. He didn’t care if we died when he started the fire. It was his plan.”

Takeyama was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 2005. But in Japan, life doesn’t necessarily mean life. With the killer up for possible future release, Stucki has spent the past four years touring the country with a simple goal: the introduction of a prison sentence of life without parole.

Article 28 of the Japanese Penal Code states that prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment may be paroled after 10 years on the condition that they “evince signs of substantial reformation.” According to justice ministry figures, the 74 life-term convicts paroled from 1997-2007 served an average of 23.5 years behind bars. Although Japan has no law allowing judges to sentence criminals to life without parole ("shushin-kei"), they do have the option of sending convicts to the gallows — a punishment Stucki saw fit for Takeyama.

“People who are against the death penalty have not experienced a family member being killed. If a member of Amnesty International had a family member murdered in front of their eyes, they would change their mind,” Stucki says during an interview at a Tokyo hotel. “There is no doubt I agree the death sentence is inhumane. It’s absolutely not human. But on the other hand, when these people kill, they are also not human … What about those little kids who are killed for pleasure, sexual pleasure. What is their future? What is my daughter’s future?”

The prosecutors demanded life for Takeyama, but Stucki says he had no sway over the prosecution’s demands, and he deplores the fact he couldn’t take the case to a higher court.

“Who was the drunk person who made this law? Why do families have no right to appeal? If you can’t kill him, don’t ever let him out.”

Two weeks after Takeyama’s sentence was handed down, Stucki hopped on his Honda XL 1000 Varadero and began his campaign. He has since met with politicians, activists, victims and members of the public in all 47 prefectures. In 2007, on his third tour, he submitted a petition with about 80,000 signatures to former Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama, a man the Asahi Shimbun dubbed the “Grim Reaper” for signing 13 execution warrants in just over a year in the role.

Now on his fourth crusade in as many years, Stucki has covered 180,000 km and amassed 95,000 signatures. His travels, however, have come at great financial cost — he has spent his entire life savings of 22 million yen.

While Stucki selected his mode of transport for practical purposes — expressway tolls are cheaper, and the bike is handy for skipping round slow-moving traffic — he has a more personal reason for touring around on what he describes as his “most important partner.”

“When I ride on my motorcycle, I feel Yurie is together with me. From when she was 3 or 4 until she was about 12, we traveled from Miyazaki to Kansai every year on summer vacation. It was a special time. I did the same with my elder daughter,” he says, referring to Miyuki, who was in Tokyo on the night of the blaze.

Many lawmakers just paid lip service

Of the 280 lawmakers Stucki has met, more than 100 have signed the petition, but others have paid mere lip service to his cause.

“Yesterday, I spoke for more than two hours with members of the justice ministry. I asked difficult questions that they couldn’t answer. I asked why the Japanese government, even if a criminal commits a very terrible crime, tries to protect him by reducing his sentence. I also don’t understand people being released for good behavior. They tell me, ‘I understand your feelings, but it’ll be difficult to achieve.’ They’re like snakes — in Italian, we say, 'Vaffanculo.'”

Suffering from insomnia, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Stucki cannot put his tragedy out of his mind.

“When I turn on the TV and watch the bad news — especially arson — it’s brutal,” he says. “When I see such news, everything begins again.”

His pain is compounded by a crippling life-long affliction. When he was just 6 months old, doctors in Rome diagnosed him with polio and told him he would never be able to walk. But after a series of operations, Stucki took his first steps at the age of 6. He still walks with a limp.

Stucki spent his childhood in Switzerland and Italy, growing up speaking three languages. Picked on because of his leg, he took up judo at the age of 11, switching to kendo when he was 15.

His martial arts took him from ippon to Nippon, where he continued his kendo studies and entered Doshisha University in Kyoto. After graduation, he taught Italian, German and English — and opera — in Miyazaki. He met his wife and founded a tile import business there.

A devout Catholic, Stucki says his mission is not a personal vendetta, but based on a strong desire to bring justice to other victims of heinous crimes in a country he feels is losing its way.

“Society has changed. When I came to Japan 33 years ago, people respected each other,” he says. “People have no respect now for their mother or father. Communication is getting colder. Families don’t love each other… It’s important to return to education as it was 35 or 40 years ago, from the standpoint of values. Not only must the criminal code be changed, but also the inside of homes.”

In his quest for the adoption new sentencing guidelines, Stucki has found unlikely allies in organizations that oppose the death penalty. A bipartisan group of about 140 lawmakers, headed by Shizuka Kamei of the center-right New People’s Party, is pushing for the death penalty to be replaced by a sentence of life in prison without parole. (Progress is slow — one Osaka anti-death penalty group refers to itself as the Katatsumuri-kai, or “Snails Association.”)

The public, however, feels differently. A 2005 government survey found that more than 80% of Japanese favored executions, with only 6% wanting the death penalty abolished. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations presents another obstacle. In November, the group issued a statement expressing opposition to a sentence of life without parole, arguing that although 79 lifers were released during the past 10 years, another 120 died in prison — effectively constituting imprisonment for life.

Michael Fox, director of the Japan Death Penalty Information Center could not disagree more. “Even if public consciousness were to swing against the death penalty, the government, hardly interested in the views of the people, would probably hesitate at abolition,” he says.

Fox offers four barbed reasons why Japan retains capital punishment despite significant international pressure for reform. “Police leverage over criminal suspects: the death penalty allows police to threaten suspects in custody and coerce confessions. Psychodynamics: Japan is a demeritocracy. Social mobility and promotion occur for those who sacrifice without making mistakes. There is little positive reward, so sardonic psychological pleasures are received in the suffering of others. Social control: a fallacious belief that the death penalty keeps the masses in line. Tradition: killing as a punishment, like whaling, has a long cultural history, so why give it up?”

Public mood may shift, however, with the introduction of the so-called lay jury system in May. Under the rules, six men and women chosen at random will sit on juries in district court trials — including capital cases. No one can predict for sure how they will react when faced with having to play God.

Stucki realizes that to make a difference, he has to be sitting in a position of power rather than knocking at the door from outside. This has led him to apply for Japanese citizenship, something he needs to fulfill his ambition of running for office as a Diet lawmaker.

“I want to take responsibility for what I’m doing here. I need to be inside the government to do this — at least work for a minister,” he says. “I can’t change anything unless I meet everyone and tell everyone the same story. This would take me years.”

While Stucki is keeping to lawful channels in his quest to see Takeyama and other remorseless killers kept behind bars for life, his emotions get the better of him when he considers the prospect of the government one day freeing the man who murdered his family.

“Maybe he’ll be released in 15 years. This makes me mad. I can’t even touch him, otherwise I’ll go to prison for attempted murder. I know the government won’t let me, but I’d like to take him down the kendo dojo for just three minutes — just three or four minutes.”

Alberto Stucki can be contacted at minervai@rhythm.ocn.ne.jp.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Best of luck Alberto. I would definitely sign your petition if I had the chance...

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USNinJapan2, I second that.

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There are a lot of dangerous misfits running around free and the police know who they are and where they are. The police, like the rest of the civil service, is lazy, and the public has to live with the consequences of their sloth. Instead of putting dangerous felons behind bars, they choose to hassle bicycle riders. Well, they're going to have their hands full soon, because a lot of the homeless and unemployed see a prison sentence as a cozy bed and breakfast.

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This is News...?

What about trying to save your family...?

I would have rescued my family OR Not come out alive...

Go home...

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While Stucki selected his mode of transport for practical purposes — expressway tolls are cheaper,...? Funny, every time I ride through the toll booth on my bike they charge me the same as for a car.

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Mindovermatter, none of us have been in this situation, you wouldnt have any idea how you would react. Wow, you sound like quite the Chuck Norris-style action man. As for the sentence handed down, as Ive said before, killing children like this in Japan does not seem to be such a serious offence. Killing a businessman, on the other hand, the judges would come down on you like a ton of bricks.

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Lay jury system will not stop crimes, but will perhaps speed-up justice system. But where is solution to prevent killings in Japan?

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Bit confused with the premise of this story. In most countries that choose to change sentencing guidelines, I don't think it is the case that legislation is made retrospective (changing the sentences of those already behind bars). As such, I am not quite sure as to this chap's motivations if any change in the legislation is not going to impact his case.

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The chap's motivation is getting our attention to the little satans who get to run around free and repeat their merciless killing.

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I hope he will be successful. As presto345 said, this case is closed, but he can make a change that will help future cases. And sometimes it works, if you remember the story of the drunk truck driver that crashed and killed a wife and two children, and got a joke sentence of 7 years. And the husband got really angry and campaigned all over Japan, and finally they made the law much stricter.

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A devout Catholic, Stucki says his mission is not a personal vendetta

I'm not a Christian myself but surely the New Testament is very clear on the importance of learning to forgive those who did you wrong. I think this is ultimately a vendetta whatever Mr. Sharp says.

Actually as a point of information many people who oppose the death penalty have had the experience of members of their family being killed by others. In my opinion it gives their point of view a particular dignity.

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Life should mean life, and flameboy should be serving it.

But if I were Alberto I might campaign for this guy to be released early instead. Then I would check to see if pyroman is immune to fire or not.

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In my opinion, life without parole is worse than a death sentence. While I don't agree with the death sentence in general, with today's lousy psychiatric care it is perhaps better for these few dangerous and obviously mentally ill REPEAT offenders.

Still, I definitely thik the courtroom should include a few psychiatrists, who can give an idea of wether the particular criminal has a chance at becoming well again or should just be executed because it's better than spending the rest of one's life in a padded cell.

Oh, and get rid of the hanging already. It's sick and messy.

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At least the Jury system will hopefully make Japanese people grip the real world

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Go home...

I was under the impression that Japan is his home.

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What is unChristian about wanting to keep a serial arsonist in prison? How many innocent people should burn for his pleasure before the bleeding hearts understand that some people are just messed beyond repair.

Someone should introduce him to his own ways.

I feel sad Alberto did not at least try to save his family before saving his own skin. I was not there and it is hard to judge, but I would at least have risked my own skin for my families. Also, why do people continue to not install smoke detectors? I mean they are like JPY5000. It should be law. It is in Australia. Come on people, take steps to protect yourselves and your families.


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There is a disturbing question hanging over this. Is it possible that this serial arsonist did not just the death penalty because he set a gaijin's house on fire? Unfortunately, murderers of foreigners get off easily in this country. Granted that at least one victim, the wife, was Japanese (and the daughter would have at least had dual citizenship) but still they were the family members of a foreigner.

It is incredible that the scumbag who committed this crime will have the possibility of walking free in 15 years. That means he has a chance to burn down someone else's house. If he burns down a public official's house maybe the politicians will get the message.

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There is a disturbing question hanging over this. Is it possible that this serial arsonist did not just the death penalty because he set a gaijin's house on fire? Unfortunately, murderers of foreigners get off easily in this country.

You shouldn't make this a racial issue. I don't think it is, so why not save the charges of racism for when it's actually warranted? There are tons of stories of lax sentencing of people who commit horrible crimes that are Japanese-on-Japanese.

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yes, it is an issue, although i'm sure the mods will say it isn't. it may not be the all encompassing issue some say it is, but it has often had a big effect.

Moderator: No, it is not a racial issue. Please focus your comments on what is in the story.

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I can not understand Mr Stucki’s loss not having experienced such loss myself. I can only hope and pray that he finds peace in his journey to put his family’s murderer behind bars for life. What a brave man Mr Stucki’s is.

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Just because you forgive someone's evil actions doesn't mean you should let him be free to murder again. Any serial arsonist and murderer who kills without remorse should not be out free. Even the Catholic church which is generally opposed to the death penalty officially acknowledges that it can be justified if it's necessary to prevent greater deaths (i.e. their position is that certain countries need a death penalty, but all others should abolish it). Most Christian nations from the beginning up to the present have administered the death penalty in their history. Nothing contradictory about it.

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I remember when this happened, and it was a racial issue from day 1, right behind the motivations of the arsonist. Go check out the newspapers from the time and read his quotes. To deny this is bewildering.

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People who are against the death penalty have not experienced a family member being killed.

I have, and I am.

This sort of statement is ridiculous.

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Wow, six people in a country where over 20% of the population has a mental condition, thats a recipe for a partyyyyy

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jeancolmar his wife and Daughter were Japanese.

The story gives the impression that he jumped through the window the moment his wife shouted ’Alberto, fire!’

I would at least try to save my kid, but then i do not know what happened.

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it's hard to say what happened just by this article, but knowing the layout of the house and where your family is located, I would at least try and find some way to go back in.

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What a hero you aren't. Heroes have compassion.


It has nothing to do with a vendetta, but everything to do with protecting the public against an enemy who will inevitably kill again if released.

May the guy not come to your home if he is.

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"Go home..."*

What an amazingly callous statement. The man had a home once... It was burned in a fire by an arsonist.

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But in Japan, life doesn’t necessarily mean life.

That's part of the problem. Why a previously convicted arsonist who shows no remorse was set free is another problem. What is amazing is that the government is not doing much to help this guy or other victims of crime in Japan. That's the real problem.

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