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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine.© Japan Today