"This is the beginning of the game..."
In June 1997, officers of the Suma police department in the Japanese city of Kobe arrested a teenaged boy named Shinichiro Azuma on suspicion of murder, in what would prove to be one of the most bizarre homicide cases in Japanese criminal history. Almost a month previously, the decapitated body of a young boy was found outside a local elementary school, along with a handwritten note in red pen, in which the killer, who identified himself as “Sakakibara,” promised more murders. The style of writing was reminiscent of a serial killer who terrorized the American city of San Francisco over two decades previously.
The case that reminded Japanese authorities of a killer who communicated with police was the infamous Zodiac Killer, who continues to remain unidentified. When fourteen-year-old “Sakakibara” was arrested, he confessed to a second murder committed in March 1997. The young killer’s identity was kept secret owing to his young age, and he was referred to as “Boy A” by the press. Sent to a young reformatory for treatment, he was released in 2004. The subsequent controversy surrounding the seriousness of his crimes as well as his early release, would lead to calls for him to be sent to prison.
When the San Francisco Zodiac killer began his reign of terror against the residents of the Bay Area, few could have believed that these crimes would go unsolved. The Zodiac case both terrified and fascinated in equal measure, and received national and international attention. In the 1990’s, a copycat killer emerged in New York. The Zodiac II murdered three and wounded six people. Then, in mid-1997, the influence of the Zodiac killer was felt at an elementary school located in Suma, Kobe, the Japanese capital city of Hyogo Prefecture, where a twisted killer used the Zodiac crimes as inspiration for his own.
The Crimes of Zodiac III
On the morning of May 27, 1997, several hours before students began their classes, the janitor at the Tainohata Elementary School made a gruesome discovery. Placed at the gates near the entrance to the school, was the decapitated head of a young boy. When police arrived on the scene, the discovered that the perpetrator had inserted something inside the victims mouth. It was a note, written in Japanese and also containing some misspelled English words such as “shooll killer”. With a distinctive style and red ink lettering, the note made reference to future murders and challenged the police to catch him.
“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 is a thrill for me to
commit murder. A bloody judgment is
needed for the years of great
The note identified the perpetrator by the name “Sakakibara,” and Japanese detectives familiar with the American Zodiac suspected that the killer had taken inspiration from the unsolved serial murder case. Police suspected the killer had hoped the remains would be discovered by the neighborhood kids, parents, and school staff, something that would have caused fear and panic among the local residents.
The janitor who came across the victim reported to police that in the week preceding the discovery, he found on school grounds the remains of two mutilated cats with paws cut off along with several dead pigeons. The victim was eventually identified as Jun Hase, an 11-year-old student of Tainohata Elementary School who attended a special needs class which was made up of children with mental and/or physical disabilities.
The body of the young boy was later found hidden underneath a local house. From the autopsy, it appeared the killer had strangled Jun to death, and then removed his head with some type of instrument, possibly a saw. There were no witnesses who saw the killer place the victims head, and police had no idea what the motive was behind the killing. It wasn’t long before “Sakakibara” made contact again.
This time he sent a letter to the Kobe Shinbun newspaper on June 6, 1997, in which he claimed responsibility for the strangulation and decapitation of June Hase, and threatened that more killings would follow soon. This letter, which was delivered in a brown envelope with no return name or address, and was postmarked June 3rd, contained three pages that comprised some 1,400 words. Written in the same red ink, it included a six-character name that can be pronounced as “Sakakibara Seito”.
This name, which in the Japanese language means a variety of words such as alcohol, rose, fight, saint and devil, was also used in the first message that was left in the mouth of Jun Hase. The letter began with the phrase, “Now, it’s the beginning of a game,” and went on to state, “I am putting my life at stake for the sake of this game. If I’m caught, I’ll probably be hanged… police should be angrier and more tenacious in pursuing me… It’s only when I kill that I am liberated from the constant hatred that I suffer and that I am able to attain peace. It is only when I give pain to people that I can ease my own pain.”
The letter also made mention of the Japanese educational system, calling it “compulsory education that formed me, an invisible person.” It appeared that Sakakibara wanted more attention towards himself and recognition for his crimes, something that he intended would cause panic in the community. During the initial press coverage, the Japanese media mistakenly reported the name of the killer as “Onibara,” which translates to Demon’s Rose.
However, the killer insisted his alias was as he gave it, “Sakakibara Seito”. Infuriated by this mix-up, Sakakibara sent another letter to the station. He wrote to the station, threatening; “From now on, if you misread my name or spoil my mood I will kill three vegetables a week…. If you think I can only kill children you are greatly mistaken.” This use of the word vegetables would later be explained by the killer referring to people around him.
Having learned this term from his parents, who had once told him, “if you are nervous at your athletic meet, picture the people around you as vegetables.” It appeared the killer wanted and craved more recognition and attention towards him and for his crimes. It appeared likely that Sakakibara had intended to imitate the Zodiac killer, possibly because he wanted to be immortalized in the same way other serial killers had been by society and the media.
The Capture of Sakakibara
The hunt for the killer ended more or less as quickly as it began. Just one month after the horrifying discovery of Jun’s head on the gates of the school, police made an arrest in the case. On June 28, 1997, a fourteen-year-old junior school student was arrested and questioned in connection with the murder. Because of Japanese laws prohibiting the mentioning of minor’s names by the press, the suspect was only referred to as “Boy A” in articles and news reports.
Despite attempts to keep his identity a secret, at least one Japanese tabloid published both his picture and real name after he was released. Shortly after his arrest, the boy confessed to the February 1997 attacks on three schoolgirls, who were lucky to escape unharmed, as well as another murder, that of a 10-year-old girl, Ayaka Yamashita, who was found fatally bludgeoned with a steel pipe on March 16, 1997. After the attack, Boy A wrote in his diary, “I carried out sacred experiments today to confirm how fragile human beings are… 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.”
The following week, on March 23, he wrote: “This morning my mom told me, ‘Poor girl. The girl attacked seems to have died.’ There is no sign of me being caught… I thank you, “Bamoidōkishin”, for this… Please continue to protect me.” Investigators were unable to learn the meaning or identity of “Bamoidōkishin,” which continues to remain unclear. Not much is known about the young boys childhood, except that he was known originally to enjoy torturing and killing small animals, before progressing onto young children.
He wrote in his diary, “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 admitted to mutilating a variety of animals, including decapitating pigeons, and recalled one particular story in his childhood when he lined up a row of frogs in a street and rode over them with his bicycle as well as mutilating cats and decapitating pigeons.
He also enjoyed playing with dangerous objects as early as elementary school, writing, “I can ease my irritation when I’m holding a survival knife or spinning scissors like a pistol.” Although he was deemed by social workers to be mentally unstable, his mother pressured Boy A into taking and passing the entrance exams needed to enter a prestigious school. But this pressure only added to his violent and aggressive tendencies, causing him to suffer from internal bitterness, as well as having an effect on his interactions with the people around him.
During a search of his bedroom after his arrest, police found thousands of comic books and pornographic videos, which some suggested might have fuelled his homicidal killing spree. Some Japanese politicians such as Shizuka Kamei were quick to blame the media and society in general, and calling for a restriction of objectionable content, he stated, “Movies lacking any literary or educational merit made for just showing cruel scenes… Adults should be blamed for this”, and that “[the incident] gives adults the chance to rethink the policy of self-imposed restrictions on these films and whether they should allow them just because they are profitable.”
A number of people, including Shōjirō Gotō, a lawyer who dealt with many false accusation cases, as well as Nobuyoshi Iwata, the former principal of the junior high school that Boy A attended, insist that he was wrongfully accused and point out several contradictions in the statements of the investigating authorities. They point to the fact that investigators said that one of the murders was committed by a left-handed person, while Boy A is right-handed.
The young suspected killer had bad grades at school, and yet his confession was complex, if somewhat cryptic, and contained many elaborate figures of speech and similes, but also contained many absurd statements and claims of things that would be impossible for a 14-year-old to do. Because he confessed to his crimes, Boy A was sentenced to a youth reformatory for treatment, mainly because he was under the age of 16 and so could not be tried as an adult.
A change in Japan’s bicameral legislature lowered the age for criminal responsibility from 16 to 14 in the year 2000, however, after the Sasebo slashing of June 1, 2004, in which Satomi Mitarai by 11-year-old “Girl A”, there has been renewed discussion for the need for further revision. For many there never any doubt about his guilt. In 2002, the boy’s mother visited him in prison and asked him if he had really committed the crimes, to which he confirmed he had murdered both children.
In an unprecedented act, the Japanese Ministry of Justice announced on March 11, 2004, that Sakakibara, 21-years-old at that time, was to be released on a provisional basis, with a full release to follow on January 1, 2005. Because the government had taken the unusual step of notifying the public, critics have argued that it was likely Sakakibara was not fit for release and instead should be transferred to prison to serve out the remainder of his sentence. This criticism was further exacerbated some three months later, in the wake of the Sasebo slashing.
The Memoir of a Killer
Because he was judged to be “cured” of his sexual sadism and compulsion to kill, Sakakibara was released on parole in 2004. Due to the seriousness of the crimes and the fact that they had been committed by a minor, Sakakibara’s name and new residence were intended to to remain a highly guarded secret. However, his real name, Shinichiro Azuma, had already been leaked by the press and circulated on the internet since June 29, 1997, according to journalist Fumihiko Takayama.
Originally, both the public and victim’s families were notified of his release and whereabouts, however, after 2004, he was no longer required to report his location and soon dropped out of sight and from public security. Living his life largely anonymous, it wasn’t until 2015 that he would again feature in the news, when he decided to release a tell-all book that would bring him back into the spotlight. On June 10, 2015, Sakakibara, then aged 32, released his controversial autobiography through Ohta Publishing titled Zekka.
His memoir, which served as a recollection of his crimes and time in prison, would vividly recount the murder of Jun Hase, the details of which had never been reported by the media. Azuma claims to have strangled and eventually decapitated Jun Hase on the slopes of a nearby mountain using a hand saw. He then carried the boy’s body into the bathroom at his home, where he locked himself in and committed a deed “far more heinous than murder.” This deed to which he alludes most likely refers to the committing sexual acts with Jun’s corpse, as Sakakibara calls himself an “incorrigible sexual deviant.”
Around 10,000 copies of the first edition of Zekka were given the green light for publication, something the victim’s families were not made away of beforehand. The president of Ohta Publishing, Satoshi Oka said in a statement, “We have never had the opportunity to read the personal account of a juvenile criminal at this level. Although I understand this book will receive a great deal of criticism, I believe that the book details events that speak to issues of juvenile criminal accountability still relevant today.”
The families of the victims, specifically Jun Hase’s family, along with many advocates for the victims had objected to and attempted to keep Zekka from being published, but ultimately the book was released. Despite one bookstore chain refusing to stock the book, it became an instant success and quickly reached the top of Japanese bestseller lists. The royalties from the sale of the book were to be paid to Sakakibara, something which only contributed to the outrage from the families of the victims.
It was reported that Sakakibara, who is still referred to as “Boy A” by the media and in legal documents, sent a personal note of apology attached to a copy of the copy, which he intended to be delivered to members of the bereaved families of his victims. It was reported that he now realizes the gravity of the crimes he committed as a teenager. Mamoru Hase, the father of Jun Hase issued a statement, in which he said “I don’t known if the murderer of our child published this book to further extend out endless suffering. It shows he doesn’t really feel bad about doing what he did. I wish this book would be pulled immediately and that no more copies be printed.”
Several months later, Sakakibara set up a vanity website in which he posted bizarre photoshopped images of a nude male, whom he suggested were of himself. In response to these controversies, the tabloid newspaper Shūkan Post decided to publicize Sakakibara’s real, Shinichiro Azuma, along with his occupation at the time, and his location. Soon afterwards, he once again faded from the public eye, despite the heinous crimes he committed, and it seems he has continued to live a normal life.
Because of the callous and inhumane nature of his crimes, and the fact that he was one of the most infamous of child killers, the murders committed by Sakakibara were the primary reason why the Diet lowered the age for criminal responsibility in 2000 from 16 to 14-years-of-age. But it would come too late to stop his release at the age of 21, and after only six years he completed his rehabilitation sentence as a medical juvenile reformatory and was set free.
His case sent shockwaves throughout Japanese society, and due to the similarities between his letters and those of the San Francisco Bay killer, Sakakibara would be referred to as Zodiac III by some publications. Although he was caught and served a sentence for his crimes, there has been much debate about whether or not justice had actually been served, and if the murderer of two young children had really been punished. One thing is certain about the Sakakibara murders committed by a minor, that it was horrific and unprecedented.