Japanese Culture Colors

the Media Lens

by Steve McCarty

Original publication: The Fortunian Times (a London virtual city

monthly online magazine), feature story for September 1997.

Graphics by the Editor, Markus Smith. Original URL:


Japanese Culture Colors the Media Lens

by Steve McCarty

Professor, Kagawa Junior College, Japan

E-mail: <mccarty@mail.goo.ne.jp>

Through much of 1997 the city of Kobe has been gripped by terror over

child murders, as if the devastation of the Great Hanshin Earthquake

were not enough. It also seems perverse because Kobe is the most

Western-style city in Japan, at least on the surface.

The media had been discussing all sorts of "evidence" and had built up a

profile of the suspect, a middle-aged man. But it turned out that a

14-year-old boy confessed to the murders and turned over the knife with

which he had cut off the head of a 6th grade acquaintance and placed

it in front of his school. The media was totally fooled by the clever

boy, and any middle-aged man could hardly dare to take a morning walk

without becoming a suspect. Only kids at his junior high school, his

parents or counselor--for not going to school--could have guessed. But

people usually avoid getting involved with Japan's bureaucratic and

tenacious police. [After this was published it was disclosed that the

boy's teachers did suspect from the beginning that he was the killer].

Now the reason for the murders was apparently the strictness of the

boy's teacher or school. Some time ago also in Kobe a schoolgirl was

killed when a teacher routinely slammed the rolling gate to discourage

lateness. Such events bare the Western atmosphere of Kobe as only skin

deep. In education it is apparently another hotbed of overheated

competition and Spartan training.

Unconfirmed reports in the vernacular media said that the boy had been

beaten by a teacher and told not to come back to school. It seems that

he simply took revenge on the school, apparently acting out some motifs

from horror media and domestic comic literature. It was reported in the

U.S. that a cache of porno videos was found, but this was a case of media

distortion, if unintentional, confusing the Kobe adolescent with an earlier

Tokyo-area serial killer in his 20s. The adolescent in Kobe was rather

emulating violent movies like "Friday the 13th." A mystery is that

X-rated genres serve as a catharsis for the majority of law-abiding

citizens, but for some individuals fantasy turns into acting out, so life

imitates art forms that had in their inception been mere caricatures of life.

The creative Kobe adolescent made his own symbol, a sort of mandala with

a swastika in it, and his motto was "school kill," misspelled in English

(that much is normal in Japan). He wrote a taunting letter to a Kobe

newspaper, showing that even a 14-year-old could crave media attention.

In the aftermath of his arrest, letters to the editor and commentaries

resisted the idea that some individuality or individual aberration was

involved. This is good in a way, because adults generally feel

responsible for their highly supervised children. Widespread

generalizing in the media about the murders by a mainstream schoolboy

pointed to some problem in the society as a whole that needed to be

faced and solved. Hypotheses were floated such as that the virtual

reality video game world of children today was to blame. For surely it

could not have been the vaunted educational system.

Before responsibility could be placed in the educational system, the

adolescent changed his story, perhaps transformed by police custody. One

newspaper was criticized for running a story that he was born in Japan

but of Korean background. It would be a horse of an entirely different

color if the killer were from a submerged minority, absolving the nation

of any flaw in its mainstream. Because of the toothless juvenile law,

the boy was anonymous yet could be back on the street in two years.

However, his name and face were leaked by a tabloid magazine and made

available at an Internet Website. Everywhere his family fled, the local

media and residents knew, although it was never publicized. My Japanese

wife would barricade herself behind closed doors with a cordless phone,

but finally relented and showed me a fax of the boy's