June 23, 2015

Memoir by Japanese killer “Boy A” provokes uproar


seikoIn the long history of monstrous criminals writing books, there are plenty of obstacles to publication. Sometimes the law intercedes, sometimes the killer doesn’t manage to sell the book, and sometimes the killer doesn’t even exist. But publishers always risk a huge amount of blowback if they succeed in publishing the work of a convicted murderer (or an unconvicted one), and Japanese publisher Ohta is no exception, as illustrated in a recent report from the Japan Times.

Brushing aside mounting criticism, a Tokyo publisher has defended its decision to release a controversial autobiography penned by a former teenage serial killer, billing it as helpful to elucidate — and even deter — heinous juvenile crimes in society.

Since the release of the autobiography last week, Ohta Publishing Co. has faced a “massive” backlash from the public, the company admitted in a statement released Wednesday.

Many critics said the book was an insensitive affront to efforts by the bereaved families to move on from the serial murders committed by the author in Kobe in 1997, according to the publisher.

The killer in question has only ever been known by a psueudonym, due to having been a minor when he committed two grisly murders. Referred to as “Boy A” during his trial and conviction, his memoir, titled Zekka (which loosely translates to “Desperate Song) is credited to Seito Sakakibara, the name signed to the taunting notes that he sent to the police after attacking three children, murdering 10-year-old Ayaka Yamashita and decapitating 11-year-old Jun Hase.

The national shock and trauma in response to his gruesome crime led to both a call for reform in juvenile criminal sentencing and criticism over the government’s decision to release Boy A in 2004. And while the killer’s real name is easily Googleable, the demand for answers as to his motive and mindset was apparently widespread enough that the book has gone into a second printing, much to the chagrin of the book’s protestors.

The book, “Zekka,” became an instant bestseller when it was released earlier this month, but Ohta Publishing Co. was hit with a barrage of criticism from the public for printing it.

The parents of one of the victims of the killings have demanded the publisher stop printing the memoirs and pull any remaining books from store shelves.

In response, some bookstore operators have refused to stock it.

Brushing aside mounting criticism, Ohta Publishing decided June 17 that it will reprint another 50,000 copies after the initial run of 100,000. The reprints will hit store shelves June 26 at the earliest.

Ohta excuses their decision to publish the book on the usual grounds; that it will “greatly benefit society by allowing it to better understand the severity of some juvenile crimes” and reveal “problems that hold true of society in general”. Jun Hase’s father countered:

“The book has caused enormous emotional distress to our family, causing serious secondary damages once again,” Hase wrote in [a letter to the publisher]. He added the revelation of the man’s motives behind the crimes “does not benefit society in developing general perspectives into juvenile crimes.”

Hase’s case against Ohta’s tastelessness is bolstered by the publisher’s macabre decision to send the victim’s families advance copies of the book with a personal note of apology from the killer/author. Meanwhile, bookstore chains and libraries are grappling with the political implications of stocking the book, with some chains suspending sales and others making the decision on a store-by-store basis.

Unfortunately, the pressing question of “cui bono” remains.  Japan Today reports that royalties are being paid to the author, while the Asahi Shimbun reports that the killer’s royalties will be used to pay off the $1.6 million in civil damages awarded to the victim’s families. However, there doesn’t appear to be any legal mechanism requiring him to do so, and this uncertainty carries unfortunate and unsettling echoes of a previous Japanese episode of murderer-turned-celebrity-memoirist.

Whether or not this book does what the publisher intends is at this point immaterial. The market that serves those looking for a lurid inside look at the mind of a serial killer balances incredible moral abandon with profit motive, and it’s certainly not hard to access that market! But the question is whether retailers will cosign such a book while the publisher doubles down, and how much that infringes on free speech. Furthermore, the claim of the book’s social benefit outweighing its financial benefit to the publisher would ring truer if the victims’ families had been involved in the decision process leading up to book’s publication, which they haven’t.

The book’s reported content features the killer expressing regret, and there is an argument to be made for literature, including memoir, through which readers can if they so choose encounter and witness the most extreme and evil aspects of human nature. But time and the court system will tell if Mencken’s famous claim that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public” applies in Japan as well.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.