Murder most foul befouls Japan-China ties
By J Sean Curtin - Asia Times
January 27, 2005
A Chinese provincial court has found two Chinese
nationals guilty of the brutal murder in June 2003 of an entire Japanese
family in in Japan's southern Fukuoka prefecture. The long-awaited
verdict in the highly emotional, high-profile trial has gripped Japan
and heightened anti-Chinese sentiment.
On Monday, Yang Ning, 24, and Wang Liang, 22, were
found guilty of the slaying of the Shinjiro Matsumoto family. Yang was
sentenced to death, while Wang received life imprisonment. Wang's lesser
punishment was immediately condemned as too lenient by a large swath of
the Japanese media that generally reacted negatively to the news.
The third Chinese accused, Wei Wei, is currently on
trial at the Fukuoka District Court, and a verdict is not expected for
some time in the slow-moving Japanese court system.
Monday's ruling is likely to complicate already
severely strained Sino-Japanese political ties and probably will
increase the rising tide of anti-Chinese feeling in Japan, already at an
all-time high. The case has also stoked deep resentment within Japan's
large Chinese community, which feels media coverage is generally biased
and anti-Chinese. They complain that similar cases of murder committed
by Japanese criminals never received such sensationalist treatment. Now
they fear right-wing politicians will exploit renewed media interest in
the case, further advancing resurgent neo-nationalist xenophobia.
On June 20, 2003, Shinjiro Matsumoto, a 41-year-old
clothing dealer, his wife Chika, their 11-year-old son Kai and eight-year-old
daughter Hina were all mercilessly slain in the southern Japanese city
of Fukuoka, capital of Fukuoka prefecture on the island of Kyushu. Three
Chinese students, Wang, Yang and another accomplice, Wei Wei, 24, broke
into Matsumoto's house to steal money.
To make sure there were no witnesses, Chika was
drowned in the family bathtub and young Kai was smothered with a pillow.
The three took eight-year-old Hina as a hostage in order to force
Shinjiro to given them the numbers of his ATM (automated teller machine)
cards. According to Wang, who gave police a full account of the gruesome
events, the father tearfully begged the trio not to kill his little
daughter. However, after he gave them the card numbers, they choked him
to death with his own tie, and then ruthlessly strangled the traumatized
The corpses of the family were unceremoniously flung
into nearby Hakata Bay, handcuffed and weighted with dumbbells, which
the trio had purchased in advance for the crime. To their disappointment,
the inhuman deed netted the gang just 37,000 yen in cash (about US$350),
all the money Matsumoto had in his bank account. A few days later, Wang
and Yang fled back to China, while Wei remained in Japan in hiding. He
was subsequently apprehended and charged.
The killings shocked Japan, and when it was learned
that the chief suspects were Chinese nationals, media coverage became
almost frenzied. It is from this point onward that the press debate
about the so-called "Chinese crime wave" began to intensify sharply and
many right-wing politicians, including Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara,
started to exploit the issue of crimes committed by Chinese and other
foreigners. As a result, many Japanese now believe Chinese and other
foreigners are largely to blame for rising crime rates, even though
police statistics clearly indicate that Japanese citizens are
responsible for more than 97% of all crimes in Japan.
Chinese upset by Japanese media
While the Chinese community in Japan has been shocked
by the horrendous crime, it feels the Japanese media has unnecessarily
overemphasized the Chinese dimension of the crime, adding to the growing
anti-Chinese sentiment generated by the nationalistic policies of Prime
Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Under the Koizumi administration, bilateral
political ties have hit rock-bottom and he is barely on speaking terms
with the Chinese leadership because of his pilgrimages to a
controversial war-tainted Shinto shrine, where World War II war dead,
including convicted Class A war criminals, are memorialized.
A Chinese student, who did not wish to give her name,
told Asia Times Online, "Every single Chinese person living in Japan
feels distressed by this terrible crime. What also upsets us is the way
the mass media [have] handled this case. It feels like they are blaming
Chinese people living in Japan for what happened and making us out to be
criminals and killers."
She said, "What Japanese people do not seem to want
to admit is that many horrible crimes exactly like this bad crime are
committed by Japanese people. In fact, there was a case exactly like
this one in the same prefecture late last year, but the media were not
really interested because the killers were all Japanese."
She was referring to the strikingly similar murders
in September of a 15-year-old high-school student, his 18-year-old
brother, their 58-year-old mother, and a 17-year-old friend, their
bodies found in the Suwa River in Omuta, Fukuoka prefecture. On
September 21, the half-naked body of a 15-year-old boy with three
concrete blocks tied to his neck and ankles was pulled from the river.
Shortly afterward, three other corpses were discovered in a mini-vehicle
submerged in the same river. All four victims had been shot to death
prior to being dumped.
Police later arrested a Japanese gangster, his wife
and sons on suspicion of involvement in the family slaying. The
strikingly similar case received much less publicity than the Matsumoto
family murders. though it took place in the same prefecture.
Dr Tom Ellis, a senior lecturer at the Institute of
Criminal Justice Studies at Portsmouth University in the United Kingdom,
said the tendency to exaggerate foreign crime is in no way limited to
Japan. He explained, "The notion that foreigners are more likely to
commit crimes than one's own countrymen or -women is pretty much a
universal phenomenon. Almost every country finds the idea appealing and
the media usually [see] a murder committed by a foreigner to be far more
headline-grabbing than one perpetrated by a home-grown killer."
Japan unimpressed with China trial
Because Yang and Wang were arrested in China, and the
two nations do not have a bilateral extradition treaty, they were tried
under the Chinese system, the formal trial stage concluding last October.
The Japanese media keenly awaited the verdict, which
was originally expected about two weeks after the proceedings closed in
October. No official explanation has been given by China for the
apparently abnormally long delay, prompting speculation that the ruling
was postponed in the interest of wider political considerations, given
strained political ties. In October Tokyo was involved in very delicate
negotiations with Beijing over a proposed mini-summit meeting between
Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao. The two men eventually met in
The delayed announcement of the verdict - if it was
linked to political considerations - clearly illustrated that Beijing
understood the damage this case already had inflicted on its image in
Japan, something the local Chinese prosecutors publicly acknowledged
during the trial.
On Monday, the Liaoyang City Intermediate People's
Court in Liaoning province, northeastern China, finally sentenced Yang
to death and Wang to a life term for what it described as an "atrocious
and cruel" crime. The Japanese media were upset that both men had not
received the death sentence and did not disguise their dissatisfaction.
Even supposedly neutral NHK News labeled the ruling "unusual".
According to the presiding judge, Wang was spared the
death penalty because he fully cooperated with investigators. On
returning to Liaoning after fleeing Japan, Wang immediately started work,
but soon aroused the suspicion of local police by "spending
extravagantly" with the stolen money. He was taken in for questioning
and soon "voluntarily" confessed to the murders, giving a clear account
of the crime and providing vital information that led to the
apprehension of Yang. Both men were formally taken into custody by
Chinese authorities in August 2003, and indicted in July 2004.
The first and only trial hearing was held in October,
when the accused duo admitted their guilt. In front of the relatives of
the victims who had traveled to China, Wang knelt down in the courtroom
and tearfully apologized for the killings, which he described in graphic
Killings damage Sino-Japanese ties
Conscious of the high-profile nature of the trial in
Japan, and Japanese criticism about the number of crimes committed by
Chinese nationals, the Liaoning authorities made every effort to ensure
that proceedings were accessible to the relatives of the Matsumoto
family and the Japanese press. Normally Chinese criminal trials are not
public but, in a highly unusual move, the Japanese media were allowed to
cover the legal proceedings, with Japanese translations provided for key
sections of the trial. Granting foreign media access is extremely rare.
The same arrangements were extended to the announcement of the verdict.
Despite these extraordinary measures, and unprecedented levels of
Chinese police cooperation with Tokyo, the Japanese media focused almost
exclusively on the negative aspects of the case, virtually ignoring the
rare openness of the proceedings.
During the trial Chinese public prosecutors
acknowledged that the murders had an extremely negative impact on the
Chinese community in Japan, and expressed concern about the harm caused
by the trio to "the friendship between our two nations". The prosecution
also stated, "They damaged the image of other students studying overseas
in Japan. Their methods were wicked and cruel, and brought grave
consequences." Tokyo drastically reduced the number of Chinese students
allowed to study in Japan.
In 2003, there were 109,508 foreign students in Japan,
of whom 64.7% came from China, with 14.5% coming from South Korea and
3.9% from Taiwan. Some believe that when the official figure for foreign
students in 2004 is released, the overall number will drop below the
In its summing up, the prosecutors requested that "severe
punishments" be imposed on the accused pair. By making such strong
statements, the prosecutors in effect demanded the death sentence. This
led the Japanese media to believe that death sentences for both
defendants were a foregone conclusion, explaining some of the
disappointment and anger at the unexpected verdict - that only one of
the pair was to be executed, with the other imprisoned for life.
Yang has said he intends to appeal his death sentence
to the Higher People's Court, while Wang has indicated he will not
challenge his life term. China operates a two-tier appellate system in
which uncontested rulings are executed by the lower court once a higher
court has authorized its decision. A final verdict for Yang is expected
within six months. Death sentences are normally carried out soon after
the final verdict is approved, with the standard method of execution
being a bullet to the back of the head.
Bereaved relatives angered by verdict
Members of the victims' family, along with the
Japanese media, roundly condemned Wang's life sentence as too lenient.
In an interview on Monday's NHK evening news, a highly dissatisfied
Ryoshichi Umezu, the 78-year-old father of Chika Matsumoto, said, "I
don't feel they were sorry for this crime." He forcefully added, "Both
should get the death sentence."
Shinjiro Matsumoto's 66-year-old father was equally
angry. He had submitted a written opinion to Liaoyang's provincial court
urging capital punishment for the two men. He was quoted in the Japanese
media as saying, "I'm at a loss for words about the ruling. It's
regrettable that our opinion was not accepted."
Poor start to crucial year for Sino-Japanese
The Japanese press also complained that the murder
case received scant Chinese media coverage, with only a handful of
Chinese newspapers reporting the trial as major news. Many Liaoyang
residents were also apparently totally unaware of the trial. However, in
a huge country like China, where violent crime is certainly not uncommon,
this was hardly unusual.
The Japanese-language press did not miss the
opportunity to highlight crimes committed in Japan by Chinese nationals.
A typical example of such comments appeared in the Mainichi-Shimbun
newspaper, which observed, "Crimes committed by Chinese in the country
make up about half of all recorded criminal cases by non-Japanese
offenders from January to November last year." However, the Mainichi and
all other papers failed to point out that crimes committed by foreigners
on average only account for about 2-3% of all crime annually.
The year 2005 marks the important 60th anniversary of
the ending of World War II, a highly sensitive occasion for both China
and Japan. If a further deterioration in bilateral political ties is to
be avoided, this year will test both countries' diplomatic skills to the
limit. It is regrettable, if not alarming, that such a critical 12
months for Sino-Japanese relations has begun on such an inauspicious