The Kobe Child Murders refers to a string of murders that took place in Kobe, Japan, between March and May of 1997. The murders sent shockwaves across the nation and was traumatic for residents of Kobe, many of whom had just been rebuilding their homes and lives that had been shattered by the earthquake that killed over 6,000 people in January of 1995.1
On the 10th of May, 1997, a group of young girls were attacked by somebody with a hammer in Kobe, Japan. Miraculously, they all managed to escape relatively unharmed. Six days later, 10-year-old Ayaka Yamashita was attacked by somebody wielding a hammer and a knife. Tragically, she was unable to escape from the attack and was bludgeoned to death.2
Just an hour after the attack on Ayaka, a 9-year-old girl was attacked in the same neighbourhood. She sustained several stab wounds. She was rushed to hospital where she survived the attack. Around the same time, a number of animals turned up dead, many of which had been mutilated.
On the 27th of May, pupils of Tainohata Elementary School were met by a gruesome sight as they arrived at school for the day. In front of the school gates was the decapitated head of special education student, Jun Hase, 11, who had been missing for several days. His eyes had been gouged out and his mouth had been slit from ear to ear.3
On a hill near the school, police discovered the young boy’s mutilated body. Inside his mouth, the killer had left a cruel note which read: “This is the beginning of the game… Try to stop me if you can you stupid police… I desperately want to see people die, it’s a thrill for me to commit murder. A bloody judgement is needed for my years of great bitterness.”
Following the discovery, the newspaper Kobe Shinbun received a letter from the killer. He identified himself as “Seito Sakakibara” and claimed that he murdered to take revenge on Japan’s education system which is known as being rigid but also known for bullying. “It’s a big mistake to think that I am a childish killer who can only kill children,” the letter read. The letter repeated the earlier warnings of future killings and taunted the police. The writing in the letter matched the writing in the other letter that had been found in the mouth of Hase and also included information that hadn’t been made public. This indicated that the letter was genuine as opposed to a hoax.
In the letter, the killer referred to children as “dirty vegetables” and threatened to kill three a week if his name were misreported again. Initially, the media referred to the killer as “Onibara.” According to the letter, Seito was not a code, a puzzle or a nickname but instead “my real name.” The killer described himself as an “invisible man” with “no nationality.” He additionally urged police to take him seriously because he was risking his life by committing crimes for which he could be hanged. “I’m not going so far as to say police should risk their lives, but pursue me with more anger and determination.”
Police mobilized over 500 investigators to work on the grim murders while concerned parents organized neighbourhood watches and children were escorted to and from school. The case sent shockwaves through Japan which was a nation unaccustomed to violent crime.4
On the 28th of June, Japan was horrified to learn that a 14-year-old school student was arrested as a suspect in the murders. Following his arrest, he confessed to the murders. Due to being a minor, he was prosecuted and convicted as “Boy A.”
In his home, police found a diary in which he described the murder of Ayaka. “I brought the hammer down, when the girl turned to face me. I think I hit her a few times but I was too excited to remember.” He also confessed to police that he had washed Jun’s severed head in the family’s bath to “release his soul.”
According to those who knew the Kobe Child Killer, he made friends easily but was known to be quite strange; he told friends that his hobbies included collecting cats’ eyeballs and tongues. According to the Kobe Child Killer, he was inspired to write the letter to police after reading about the Zodiac Killer. In his home, police discovered books on Hitler and books about serial killers.5
Following his arrest, he underwent psychiatric treatment and in 2004, the Kobe Child Killer was released on a provisional basis with a full release announced to follow on the 1st of January, 2005.
Following his release, he wrote a letter of apology to the parents of his two murder victims. It was the very first time that he had directly expressed an apology for what he had done. The contents of the letters were not publicly disclosed but according to Ayaka’s mother, she accepted the letter and said: “I will think it over…” The true motivation for what drove the teenage boy to kill was never fully explained due to privacy.
In 2015, the Kobe Child Killer published a memoir which dwelled on his murders and left and air of ambiguity about the extent of his regret. “Let me confess something: I thought the sight was a beauty,” he wrote, referring to displaying Jun’s head in public view. He also confessed that before displaying the head, he took it to the bathroom in his home and committed a deed “far more heinous than murder.”
According to the Kobe Child Killer, while a teenager, he was an “incorrigible sexual deviant” who took satisfaction in mutilating animals before eventually moving on to killing human beings. “When I advanced to junior high school, I had already become bored of killing cats, and gradually found myself fantasizing about how it would feel to murder human beings like me,” he wrote.
In an epilogue, he spoke about the guilt he allegedly feels over the string of murders and offered an apology for the parents of his victims: “I couldn’t keep quiet about my past anymore. I had to write. Otherwise, I thought I would go insane,” he said.
The release of the book understandably led to an outrage. Many critics felt as though the book was insensitive. Mamoru Hase, Jun’s father, called for it to be withdrawn. He was quoted in local media as saying: “The book completely trampled on our feelings. It is clear that he is not sorry for what he did.”
According to the publisher, Ota Publishing Co., they went ahead with publication because they deemed the killer’s account important to place in public record amid heightened concerns over the severity of juvenile criminals.6
The book sold out its entire 100,000 initial run in just three weeks, earning the Kobe Child Killer an estimated $93,000.7
Following to controversy, there were growing calls for Japan to introduce a legislation similar to the United States Son of Sam Law which prevents criminals and ex-convicts from profiting from the publicity of their crimes. The Kobe Child Killer was not Japan’s first killer to profit from his crimes. Tatsuya Ichihashi, who raped and murdered British teacher, Lindsay Hawker, in 2007, and Tomohiro Kato, who killed seven strangers in a stabbing and vehicular rampage in 2008 had both written memoirs.8
Following the publication of his memoir, the Kobe Child Killer created a website to document his life. It offered biographical details, such as his height and weight and detailed that he was suffering from expansive delusions. In the gallery section, there were photographs of a nude man wearing a mask.9
Shortly after the website was announced, a Japanese tabloid defied the laws that were designed to protect the rights of minors by printing the real name and a photograph of the Kobe Child Killer. The Shakan Post identified him as Shinichiro Azuma. They additionally announced that he was living in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, and announced that he was working as a welder on construction sites.
- The Mercury News, 6 June, 1997 – “Letter Links Boys Slaying, Japanese Schooling”
- The Seattle Times, 15 July, 1997 – “Boy Charged in May Beheading”
- The Independent, 1 July, 1997 – “School Rebel Confesses to Second Killing”
- The Seattle Times, 6 June, 1997 – “Letter Writer Threatens to Kill Three People a Week in Kobe”
- The Hamilton Spectator, 5 July, 1997 – “Beheading Suspect Horror Fan”
- Japan Times, 10 June, 2015 – “Kobe Murderer Writes Ambiguously of Regret”
- South China Morning Post, 16 September, 2015 – “Matter of Public Concern”
- Japan Times, 27 July, 2015 – “Child Killer Memoir Zekka Fuels Calls for Tougher Proceeds-Of-Crime Laws in Japan”
- Japan Times, 10 September, 2015 – “Child Killer Sakakibara Believed to Have Launched Vanity Website”