“The Dark Side” by Mark Schreiber

A study of crime -- from kidnapping and cannibalism to mass murder -- in the land of the Rising Sun challenges the stereotype of a safe, orderly society.

Topics: Crime, Books,

Kidnapping, cannibalism and mass murder — not commonly associated with Asia’s most prosperous people. But author Mark Schreiber eschews the “ridiculous two-dimensional cardboard characters” that foreigners writing about Japan have a tendency to deliver, and his latest work, “The Dark Side,” affirms that there is a lot more to this country than Sony PlayStations, rampant consumerism and the meticulous cultivation of small trees. In fact, the book — a compilation of the writer’s weekly crime columns published in the Mainichi Daily newpaper — could give Hollywood plenty to draw upon.

Take Aum Shinrikyo, for example. Schreiber details the religious cult’s rise to prominence, which escalated from brainwashing and robbing its followers to bullying the government, intimidating and murdering those seeking to check its power. Its misdeeds culminated in the 1995 sarin gas attack carried out on the Tokyo subway, an act of terrorism that killed 12 and injured thousands. Even as Aum enjoyed tax-preferential status and protection from state interference as a religious organization, its members experimented with anthrax as a means of mass destruction. At one point, according to Schreiber’s account, karate and medical experts were dispatched by Aum leaders to murder and mangle beyond recognition the family of a lawyer who was representing plaintiffs against the cult.

Although the book’s more heinous scenes are the stuff of horror movies — there is, for example, the detailed description of a botched decapitation (it took multiple chops and some hacking) and the ashes of a vanished 4-year-old girl that appeared on her family’s doorstep — it’s more than one grim tale after another. The crimes are shocking, but Schreiber does not sensationalize them. “Victims are to be pitied, and sometimes perpetrators too. [The crimes] might have happened decades or centuries ago, but human life is not something which I make light of, and while the stories themselves may incorporate some wacky aspects, we should not forget, while we enjoy reading these old accounts, that people suffered and died too.”

Schreiber’s latest effort, along with his “Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan,” is one of a few recent releases that have increased access to Japanese criminal history for non-Japanese speakers. There is also Robert Whiting’s absorbing account of the postwar development of mafia and racketeering activities, “Tokyo Underworld.” Although in the English-speaking world there may be a sense that Schreiber has unearthed some dirty truths — especially given the stereotype of Japan as a safe haven from crime — the author is quick to point out that, with the help of an 18th-century dictionary, much of the information he uses is readily available. When he first began writing about crime in the mid-’80s, Schreiber found that Japan had “extensive historical records of crime related topics — up until now not in English.”

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Although crime is regularly covered by the mass media in Japan, “the majority of Japanese people have a strongly held belief that this country is safe — a place where women can walk home alone from the subway in the dark,” says Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist at Temple University in Japan. That’s especially true when compared to how the Japanese perceive the United States, which, she says, is seen as an exceptionally dangerous place, to mythic proportions.

Kawanishi notes that due to increased publicity about violent attacks by strangers — crimes that have no clear motive — this feeling of security is beginning to slip. These crimes, she says, threaten people because they see no rationale behind them. They leave people puzzled and scared because unlike “classic” crimes, where, for example, someone is seeking revenge, people feel they have no control over whether they might be the next victim.

Regardless of new trends in crime, however, as “The Dark Side” illustrates, this country has a long history of criminal activity, and its reputation as a place where bad things don’t happen has always been a myth. Because the book covers 400 years, the selection of crimes is just a smattering of what happened over the period. But Schreiber’s choices include a fascinating and carefully selected array of incidents, offering a wealth of cultural as well as criminal intrigue, thanks to detailed and entertaining background information. There are clever criminals with political and religious motives, downtrodden individuals resisting the system, insights into the position of women and foreigners in society and details about the legal system’s development.

In “A Man With a Grudge,” Schreiber recounts the tale of a Japanese-born Korean man, who in 1968 shot and killed two Japanese gangsters and took 13 hostages. He gained a national audience, demanding an apology from the police for their “humiliating” treatment of Koreans (the apology was later actually delivered on a major TV network). He told reporters who’d gathered at the hot springs where he held his hostages: “I’m risking my life to fight against Japanese persecution. This is a problem that every Japanese has to take responsibility for.”

Non-Japanese may find the sociological implications in some of the stories rather baffling. For instance, there’s the story of a man who abducted a schoolgirl and kept her in his bedroom at his mother’s house — for nine years. His mother claimed she’d never seen the girl, having been banned from her son’s room for the past 10 years and busy working much of the day. Although this claim attracted skepticism here, it is more believable in the context of family relations in Japan than in the U.S., where it would seem preposterous. On a lighter note, there is the story of a man who posed as a police officer and pulled over a Nissan laden with over $800,000 in Toshiba staffers’ bonuses, telling the bank employees driving it that there was a bomb planted in their vehicle. As they fled, he escaped with the car, poignantly illustrating the respect for authority and the quirky cash-based society that persist in Japan today.

In this sense, although this is ostensibly a book about crime, it also serves as an altogether agreeable window into Japanese culture. Even though Schreiber adheres to journalistic style, the stories he’s chosen and his detailed descriptions of social interactions that take place in them drive home many key cultural themes in Japan. His accounts articulately demonstrate the country’s rigid social structure, which historically assigns certain roles according to gender, class and race. That said, Schreiber is also careful to choose examples that show that exceptions do occur.

This is one instance in which being a foreigner — Schreiber is American born but has spent 37 years in Japan — has arguably worked in the author’s favor. Schreiber doesn’t treat his subjects as exotic, but he draws other foreigners into the material by giving cultural clues and context. One way he does this is by tossing in idiosyncrasies of language. For example, in “The Woeful Fate of a Poisonous Wife,” he notes: “Poison is so associated with women who kill that Japanese commonly refer to a murderess with the sobriquet dokufu (poisonous wife).”

Schreiber believes that being foreign aided him in his research. “When I approached experts on the subject of crime, they were delighted to meet me. I think the sheer novelty of a foreigner digging through [Japan's true crime literature] so energetically sort of piqued many people’s curiosity.”

Schreiber’s legwork makes what could be quite dry material from hundreds of years ago feel remarkably relevant. For instance, in one story he cites the tombstone engraving of a man believed to have been murdered in 1896, commenting on how the slightly altered version of a Tennyson poem found there could give clues affirming his convicted wife’s guilt. Even in some of the older cases you get the feeling that, as Schreiber is prone to say, more evidence awaits discovery.

Jennifer Hanawald is a writer and editor living in Japan

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