Two Japanese True Crime History Books

Japan Books: Two Japanese True Crime History Books by Mark Schreiber

The Dark Side - Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals (2001)

The Dark Side - Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals.

by Johannes Schonherr, July 2016

Japan is generally considered to be a very safe country for residents and visitors alike. Rightly so. But crime has always existed in Japan, of course, and at times, truly spectacular crimes have taken place.

In ancient Edo Japan, such spectacular crimes formed the base of popular kabuki plays, later, crimes were turned into novels, today, they are the fodder of the tabloid press.

Modern Japanese media have no compunction about reporting even the most sordid details of those spectacular murders, kidnappings or sex crimes.

But when told while maintaining a certain distance to the actual deeds and their circumstances, tales of crimes and criminals can bring the general picture of a society perfectly to life - with the criminal outlaw serving as vivid character shedding a brightly colorful light on the otherwise often mundane daily life of society in his time and place.

That's exactly the type of approach that Mark Schreiber uses in his true crime books. Schreiber, an American writer, is a long-term resident of Japan with exceptional Japanese reading skills. He seems to be familiar with even the most obscure terms in the Japanese language, a knowledge that he still frequently shares with the readers of the Japan Times in highly entertaining texts.

Wanted Poster of Japanese Criminals, Japan.
Wanted Poster of Japanese Criminals

The Dark Side (2001)

In The Dark Side - Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals, Schreiber delivers an overview of Japanese crime in the last 400 years, ranging from the beginning of the Edo Period in the early 1600's to about the year 2000.

Those crime stories unfold before a rich tableaux of the social structure of the times, the laws in effect, the organization of law enforcement, the ways of punishment and the methods of executing serious offenders.

The first half of the book focuses on the Edo Period (1603-1868) when, after decades of war between the clans, a somewhat modern justice and law enforcement system was introduced by the Tokugawa shoguns.

Ancient Chinese law books were translated and informed the judges appointed on how to investigate the crimes at hand. Question everything you are told, keep calm, don't let your emotions overcome your critical thinking, was the general tone of the books, and that became the new standard. The hot-headed, arbitrary rulings by the old warrior clan lords and their often extremely cruel ways of punishment were phased out.

Still, torture aided the investigations and punishment could be harsh. The execution methods ranged from beheadings to crucifixions (unlike in old Rome, the condemned were quickly speared to death) to nokogiribiki, the sawing off of the head, the latter being reserved only for the most extreme criminal cases.

As tough as the punishment was, Japan in the Edo era had its fair share of famous criminals. Robbers, thieves and poison-happy ladies, violent gamblers and tricksters of all kinds.

Quite a few of them became later enshrined as characters in kabuki plays - the public was as fascinated by accounts of outlandish deeds then as now.

Like, say, Nezumi Kozo, beheaded in 1832. He became a legend as a sort of Japanese Robin Hood - always stealing from the rich. Nezumi Kozo (actually his nickname, translating to something like Rat Kid) always targeted samurai houses with his burglaries.

Merchants would very much protect their property, samurai would feel that they were untouchable and that no one would ever dare to enter their houses to steal. Well, Kozo did. Many deeply ashamed samurai would not even report the burglary. Having their jewels stolen by a mere thief would mean that they totally lost face.

While Robin Hood is said to have shared his gains with the poor, Kozo never did. He just gambled it all away - and the rest he spent on female companions. But since the poor had an intense dislike for their samurai overlords, Kozo's exploits made him a folk hero of sorts. He soon became a character in a kabuki play, in the early 20th century, famous novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) further romanticized him in one of his short stories.

The end of the Edo era saw the arrival and settlement of Western foreigners in ports such as Kobe and Yokohama. One killing of a foreigner led to war-like consequences. A young English merchant, Charles Richardson, went out for a leisurely horseback ride with a few friends in the vicinity of Yokohama in 1862.

By coincidence, they encountered the traveling entourage of the powerful Satsuma daimyo (clan lord) from Kagoshima on his ceremonial visit to Edo (Tokyo). Everyone was supposed to get down on their knees when the revered Satsuma daimyo passed by, the young English travelers stayed on their horses and looked on as if they were tourists watching a strange spectacle. This did not go over well with the samurai accompanying the Satsuma daimyo. They charged after the party of foreigners, killed Richardson and injured a few of his friends.

Britain responded by firing heavy artillery from a fleet of warships at the city of Kagoshima, the home of the Satsuma clan, destroying parts of the city.

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) brought the opening of Japan to the outside world. It also attracted foreign criminals into the country and Japanese started to settle in America, at least one Japanese criminal ended up on the electric chair shortly after its invention by Thomas Edison.

Schreiber covers all the changes taking place, through the Taisho and early Showa Period, providing fascinating details of the most mysterious, the most outrageous crimes of the times, including Sada Abe, the sex-crazed lover who strangled her chosen man, cut off his genitals and walked the streets for days holding her trophy before being captured (in 1936). Abe inspired a number of films, including Nagisa Oshima's still controversial 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses.

Schreiber's accounts of crime after World War II however are rather short in The Dark Side. He knows how to write his stories, he mentions the most sensational cases and provides essential information, but that's about it. A disappointing end for an otherwise thoroughly informative and entertaining book?

Wanted Poster of Japanese Criminals, Japan.
Wanted Poster of Japanese Criminals

Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan (1996)

Shocking Crimes in Postwar Japan.

Actually, Schreiber had already published Shocking Crimes in Postwar Japan a thorough and extensive look on Japanese post-war crime in 1996.

When The Dark Side hit the stores in the early 2000's, there was no need for Schreiber to go over the same material again. Interested readers would consider the two books a sort of complimenting pair, sitting next to each other on the shelves of Kinokuniya or any other bookstore in Japan with a good selection of English-language books.

Unfortunately, that's no longer the case. Shocking Crimes in Postwar Japan is out of print and if you look for a copy on the net, you will find booksellers trying to peddle it for prices starting at 140 U.S. dollars.

That's a shame and one can only hope that the book will soon be re-published again and sold for a reasonable price.

There is no other book covering crime from the 1940's to the 1990's in Japan in this detail, variety and intensity.

Schreiber concentrates on 16 different cases that illuminate various eras and social developments in Japan from the immediate post-war years to the time he wrote the book. The Aum Shinrikyo sarin poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995 took place while he was putting the final touches on his work. He includes in the opening chapter how he learned about the attack taking place and describes its immediate aftermath.

Then he jumps back in history, to the rapes and murders committed by Yoshio Kodaira right after the end of the war. Kodaira claimed in his defense that he had committed similar crimes in China during the war and received a medal for them. Kodaira's crimes also shape the plot of David Peace's novel Tokyo Year Zero.

A strange bank robbery took place in Tokyo in 1948 where the robber posed as health department official, lined up all bank employees and made them drink a poisonous potion. 12 people died, a suspect was apprehended and confessed but it was apparently never really certain if he was the real culprit. This strange case is also the focus of David Peace's Occupied City, the second of his Tokyo Trilogy.

Yakuza; a violent, frustrated Korean criminal; leftist radicals hell-bent on murdering each other in a cruel purge, then taking over a small inn in Karuizawa, turning it into a fortress and fighting police for several days; the kidnapping of South Korean opposition leader (and later president) Kim Dae-jung from a Tokyo hotel by the South Korean secret service. Japan certainly has had its share of spectacular crimes in recent history, too.

So, one can only hope that the book will be back in print soon. Up to then, keep your eyes open at small used book stores, you might find it there for a fraction of what it costs online.

The Dark Side - Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals
by Mark Schreiber
Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International, 2001
250 pages

Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan
by Mark Schreiber
Tokyo: Yenbooks, 1996
309 pages


Books on Japanese Manga