Escape in Japan

Tokyo Sonata

a film directed by Kurosawa Kiyoshi
buruma_1-061109.jpg
Anno Moyoco/Una Knox/Vancouver Art Gallery
The cover illustration of Anno Moyoco’s manga Sakuran, set in a red-light district during the Edo period and published by Kodansha in 2003; from ‘KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games,’ an exhibition organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and on view at the Japan Society, New York City, through June 14, 2009

Murders are relatively rare in Japan, but when they occur they tend to be frenzied: a young man—“sick and tired of life”—plowing into a crowd of Tokyo shoppers in a hired two-ton truck, before knifing seven people to death; an eleven-year-old schoolgirl slashing her twelve-year-old friend after a row over a message posted on the Internet.

In November 2008, Koizumi Takeshi, an unemployed man of forty-six, dressed as a parcel delivery man, turned up at the home of Yamaguchi Takehiko, a former Health Ministry vice-minister. The ex-bureaucrat, who was forced to resign his post after the government lost millions of pension records, came to the door wearing his wife’s slippers. Soon both Yamaguchi and his wife lay sprawled in the hall, one on top of the other, after being stabbed multiple times in the chest. Later that same day, the wife of another Health Ministry bureaucrat was wounded by the same man (her husband was not at home).

The case was written about extensively in the Japanese press. The scandal about the lost pension records was cited as the most likely motive for the killings. Clearly they had to be extreme symptoms of popular rage at government incompetence in a time of economic distress.

In fact, the killer turned out to have been enraged by something quite different. Many years ago, when he was still a young boy, Koizumi’s pet dog had been taken to the pound by his father to be euthanized, apparently for disturbing the neighbors with its frequent barking. The sad event was hardly the responsibility of the vice-minister of health and welfare, but Koizumi explained in an e-mail message that his murder “was revenge for the killing by a healthcare center of my family thirty-four years ago.”

That the Japanese press instantly linked the murders to the economic crisis reveals the jumpiness of the public mood in Japan. The statistics are indeed grim: industrial output fell by 9.6 percent last December, unemployment “soared” to 4.4 percent, by January exports fell by 46 percent, and the economy might contract by as much as 5.8 percent this year.

Not that you notice many of the effects of this in the tonier parts of Tokyo. On the first day of a visit, in early January, I was taken to a Parisian-style café in fashionable Omote Sando, where a café au lait costs more than $10. At the next table was a smartly dressed middle-aged man fussing over his pet Pomeranian, whose furry head, adorned with a denim cap, emerged from a Louis Vuitton handbag. Nearby was another customer who …

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