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