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Driven to murder by debt

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The other day a story appeared on this site about Isao Shinomoto, a heavily indebted man who went over the edge and bludgeoned his wife and son to death with a pickaxe.

The comments under the story were interesting. Some people felt this guy deserved the rope; others pointed out that he’d probably get the death penalty and languish on death row forever.

A number of thoughts came to my own mind, including the existence of a type of company that provides high-interest loans to people who could not ordinarily get them from banks. Some of these companies (especially in the past) were known to employ associates who were skillful at getting people to cough up money – in some cases by driving them to spare their family shame and harassment by killing themselves, then subsequently cashing in on money from insurance payments and estate liquidations.

Several years ago, a series of advertisements appeared on TV from a company called Aiful featuring a cute Chihuahua. In the first commercial of the popular series, a guy and his daughter are shopping and his daughter sees a dog in the window of the store and wants it. Her father sternly answers, “Dame! Dame!” as she says, “Kawai! Kawai!” He then adds, “Wait until I get my bonus.” Suddenly, the dog looks at him, and he looks at the dog (cue typical melancholic TV drama piano music). He fantasizes about the wonderful life he will have with the dog, running on the beach and kissing it. Lost in a daydream, even his daughter can’t get his attention as Aiful’s famous “Dou suru? Aifulu?” (What to do? Aifulu!) jingle plays.

The result of the campaign, among other things, was a boom in the sales of Chihuahuas. Today, you will see many people in Japan with Chihuahuas – and there’s a good chance if you ask them the age of the Chihuahua, it may very well date back to the year that commercial ran (though some of the Aiful boom Chihuahuas are now old enough to be grandparents.)

But amid the popularity of the “Dou Suru – Aifulu?” TV campaign, the company became embroiled in accusations of loan sharking.

Of course, predatory lending is nothing new in Japan or anywhere. It's what makes movies with tough Asian (and Italian) gangsters fun to watch. But the idea that the new face of the modern loan shark was a cute Chihuahua and Japanese “everyman” (actor Shogo Shimizu) resulted in a forced awakening, as well as greater public awareness that the modern loan shark was not your back alley missing-finger gangster in a white gym suit, but actually your local ATM, or those buildings full of loan companies that can be found in front of virtually every train station.

The result (after a barrage of frenzied media coverage) was a tightening of consumer finance laws. Among other things, interest rates were capped at 20% and now may not exceed one-third of a person’s annual salary. "Sarakin" (loan sharks) were also forbidden from buying suicide insurance on borrowers.

Many argue, however, that these laws have done little other than to force moneylenders to be more creative – as well as push desperate consumers, often housewives to seek finance from even more dubious sources.

In my own time in Japan, I’ve personally known a handful of people who’ve fallen into heavy debt – one, due to interest from loans after an employer went broke and still had bills to pay; another, a young OL who decided to continue shopping “between jobs” for a job that was slow to come and suddenly was unable to keep up with the compounded interest. I’ve also known a couple people who simply took off and vanished, not even telling their closest friends, presumably to start a new life somewhere else in Japan out of the grip of nagging bill collectors.

The one who I remember the most was a "juku" (cram school) teacher who was a regular customer at a ramen restaurant I ate at. We only knew him by the name of "Sensei." He ran a small "juku," which was on the way home from work for me. Sometimes I’d drop in to say hello. It was apparent that he was well liked by his students but he was an unhappy man. Each night he would come into the ramen shop, read the "keiba" (horse racing) paper, talk about how much he hated his wife and wanted to go back to his island in Kyushu. He’d sit, drink beer, insult the customers one by one, then get up, and pay everyone’s bills.

We all agreed that Sensei was “kawaii so” and felt bad for him.

A few years later, I found out that Sensei’s keiba problem had gotten worse and he’d fallen into heavy debt. One evening, after a night of drinking, he went to the "juku." He was found the next morning hanging from a fixture – a victim of self-hate, shame, pity and anger at the world.

The question arises: How crazy can a person become from the shame and burden of being a debtor and the social pressures surrounding it?

Personal debt can drive people over the edge. One need not merely live in Japan, to experience countless stories of suicide (the silent ones) and periodic murder-suicide/familicides as well (the ones the make the news).

When looking at the case of Isao Shinamoto, the chronic debtor who bludgeoned his wife and son to death, we can only speculate how sick he is. The death penalty in Japan is usually reserved for particularly brutal multiple murders exactly like the one he committed. Chance is it’s his.

But regardless of Shinamoto’s fate, we might consider the plight of thousands of other chronic debtors in Japan and around the world living in "sarakin-jigoku" (lender’s hell) and if future tragedies like this can be averted before before they make the headlines yet again.

© Japan Today

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11 Comments

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Ok, Eddie, apart from the lazy and facile "crazy" or "sick" label commonly heard, what is the point of your piece? What is your "opinion?" Simply that we should "consider the plight" of folks in debt?

-7 ( +1 / -8 )

@ben - the opinion is implied, yet obvious. Does he have to spell it out? A better system must be created in Japan to help those who are heavily indebted. An option to file personal bankruptcy, better counseling services, public service messages to de-stigmatize indebtedness. Whatever. The current system obviously isn't working.

5 ( +8 / -3 )

@Equality -- Well I guess I'm just Landsberg-challenged because I fail to see the point of most of his rambling pieces. Truth is, aside from rehashing news stories (both old and recent), throwing in a cute chihuahua tale, and adding an anecdote about a juku teacher's suicide, Eddie adds nothing original or interesting to the discussion, and falls into the all-too-easy trap of labeling his characters crazy and sick. His way of thinking is problematic for a number of reasons, chief among these being Eddie's presumptuousness. It is naive and simply too easy to presume that Mr. Shinomoto killed his wife and son because he was in debt. Has Eddie spoken to the murderer or does he have any knowledge of the dark depth of a killer's psychology? He was in debt, yes; he killed two people, yes . . . can we say authoritatively there was a direct connection between the two? Absolutely not.So Equality, Eddie is not being subtle but merely muddled. As for your second point, I'm sorry but I don't agree that the "current system isn't working." I think it's working just fine, given what it is. Had you done the slightest bit of research, you would have discovered that personal bankruptcy is, in fact, quite a simple and cheap process. Ask any of the millions of Japanese who have gone this route. Counseling does exist, either at the ward office or from lawyers who advertize on subway posters and offer free telephone advice. Companies like Aiful and Promise and Lake lend money in order to make money . . . it is a business. Caveat emptor. Read the fine print. If you miss a payment and people start harassing you, file a complaint. I'm not saying it's a soft and fuzzy business, but borrowers are adults, after all, and they need, like you and Eddie, to stop crying and playing victim.

-6 ( +1 / -7 )

I want to say they should forbid loaning money to people altogether. But then again, if it is for a business or kids education I can completely understand you use it as an investment. However 90% of the loans are for luxury items. Its hard for a lot of people but if you simple cannot pay it, then you should not buy it. Save money, save trouble.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I think you have a serious social problem when people are supporting organized crime at best and committing murder/suicide at worst. There are pachinko, pachislot, ATM lending machines and sparking biiru in front of every train station I go to. Gambling and chronic debt are tied into compulsive disorders --psychological problems. Furthermore, women often can't get loans without their husband's permission/knowing from reputable banks. New law rules out even credit unions. It's a serious social problem that funds organized crime and leads to people getting killed. They also are a common reason for divorce. Filing for bankruptcy also has serious consequences in Japan -- the person becomes part of a blacklist that makes it hard to function in society even maintain a career. It is not a light problem, but I don't think it gets talked about enough.

In the case of this story, the man confessed and stated his debts were the cause of his action. It was also on the Japanese news.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I always enjoy reading Mr.eddie landsberg's articles. And this time I found this article personally very interesting, because I 've been working as a juku teacher for a long time, and have seen colleagues go into desparate situations like his friend several times.. Aside from women who have both their own income and their spouses' salarly, men who are small juku owners are mostly self employed and handicapped in many ways. In Japan we have a traditional word "村八分"mura-hachibu, in which situation, people are alienated from their society except wedding and funeral. I personally feel for Japanese people longing to be the same as other members of the society is stornger than any other nations in the world. If they can't meet the standard of their society , that means the end of them . I took Mr. Landsberg is raising the question why many Japanese people are commiting sucides or "心中”shinju-killing all the members of the family if they are debt- strickend instead of commiting crimes. I am looking forward to reading his next article how this Japanese mentality differs from that of other countries.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@johnnygogogo

I think you have a serious social problem when people are supporting organized crime at best and committing murder/suicide at worst. There are pachinko, pachislot, ATM lending machines and sparking biiru in front of every train station I go to. Gambling and chronic debt are tied into compulsive disorders --psychological problems. Furthermore, women often can't get loans without their husband's permission/knowing from reputable banks. New law rules out even credit unions. It's a serious social problem that funds organized crime and leads to people getting killed. They also are a common reason for divorce. Filing for bankruptcy also has serious consequences in Japan -- the person becomes part of a blacklist that makes it hard to function in society even maintain a career. It is not a light problem, but I don't think it gets talked about enough.

In the case of this story, the man confessed and stated his debts were the cause of his action. It was also on the Japanese news.

As far as I know, once you file for bankruptcy「自己破産」it takes 7~10 years for your name to get deleted from that Black List. If I'm wrong, please someone have the courtesy to correct me. I've never done this in my life.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sorry, I made a mistake. Murahachibu"村八分"means people are alienated from their society exept on occasion of fire((火事),and funeral. Not marriage.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Well, I liked the ride this time. At least he stayed on the point.

The beginning of the solution to this ongoing problem is to outlaw exhorbitant interest rates and compound interest rates. Next allow borrowers a generous grace period in which to repay the loans. Next break the backs of loan companies that use strong arm tactics. And put the people responsible for such tactics away for a long, long time. And how about this: make the loan companies responsible if their clients commit suicide because of debts. Oh and just one more thing. Ban loan companies from advertising in the media.

it would be easy to make the loan shark extinct if government and law enforcement made a concentrated effort to this end. But the people who are supposed to serve and protect us are not serving or protecting us in this matter. That is a shame.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A lot of it comes down to people making the wrong decisions.

My father in law works with some of these people, and he told me of stories of people getting card loans to play pachinko, losing the money, and getting into a debt spiral.

He is happy to help these people, but sometimes it is difficult to save people from themselves.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Anytime you mix obsessive compulsive personalities and money, you should already know that nine times out of ten the isn't going to end well.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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