Japan Data

Will Tougher Laws Halt Violent Juvenile Crimes?

Thirteen-year-old Uemura Ryōta was killed in the early morning of February 20, 2015, in Kawasaki by three older boys, reigniting calls for revision of the Juvenile Act. The cruelty and brutality of the murder also prompted calls for publication of the 18-year-old group leader’s name and photo, now prohibited under the Juvenile Act. Such a move may be related to the bill now being debated to lower the voting age in Japan from 20 to 18.

Forced to Swim Naked in Freezing River

Horror and disbelief swept the nation as details of the February 2015 murder of 13-year-old Uemura Ryōta by three older teenage boys were revealed. Uemura had habitually been beaten by the 18-year-old ringleader. On the night that he was killed, he had been stripped naked and forced to swim in the icy waters of Tama River in Kawasaki. His body had been slashed with a utility box cutter knife in several places, and he died when a blade ripped into his neck. One of the older boys, a 17-year-old who had accompanied the others to the riverbed, left the group temporarily after being told he could go away. When he returned, he saw Uemura being badly beaten and tried to intervene. This infuriated the 18-year-old leader, who began threatening the 17-year-old and ordered him to stab Uemura. Unable to disobey, he cut Uemura’s cheeks, telling the boy as he did so, “I’m sorry I have to do this.”

The three hid Uemura’s naked body in the grass and left the riverbed, burning his clothes in a public toilet in an attempt to cover up the crime. Uemura is thought to have been forced to get on his knees, with his hands tied with a plastic band that was found near the body. The leader reportedly tried to decapitate Uemura, inspired by images of the execution of Japanese hostages by Daesh (the self-described Islamic State) jihadists.

Leader’s Name and Face Published Online

People reacted to the young boy’s brutal, shocking murder with rage, and the name and photos of the 18-year-old ringleader were posted on the Internet. The weekly Shūkan Shinchō also carried them in its March 12 edition—in violation of Article 61 of the Juvenile Act, which prohibits such acts for juvenile suspects. The magazine’s editors explained that the decision was made after considering a full range of factors, such as the crime’s brutality, its far-reaching social impact, and the youth’s background.

Shūkan Shinchō commented that it published the suspect’s photos that it found on the Internet after “confirming them with his friends.” His name and photos can still be readily found online, and the easy access to such information was no doubt a factor behind its decision. At the same time, though, the magazine has come under criticism for violating the Juvenile Act (even, as in this case, when no penalties are specified for noncompliance). Most other media groups—not only major print and broadcast organizations but also Shūkan Shinchō’s rivals—have refrained from publishing information that could identify the youth.

Age of Legal Adulthood Raised to 20

Needless to say, laws are amended when they no longer meet society’s changing needs. The Juvenile Act, too, has been revised five times in the postwar era, first in 1949, when Japan came under pressure from Occupation authorities to democratize its prewar institutions. The new law redefined “juveniles” as anyone under the age of 20, raising the age limit from 18. Family courts were also established to hear cases involving juvenile suspects and to adopt either given punitive or reformatory measures.

The changes also reflected the social turmoil of the immediate postwar years; many war orphans were driven to theft or robbery out of hunger, so the law was designed to protect and rehabilitate these children.

As the nation experienced rapid growth and emerged as one of the world’s largest economies, the nature of juvenile delinquency also underwent a change. More crimes were committed by younger youths, and the nature of those crimes became more violent. In 1988 a group of four teenagers between 16 and 18 abducted a high school girl, held her captive, raped, beat, and killed her, and hid her body in a steel drum filled with concrete, eventually disposing of the drum in a tract of reclaimed land in Kōtō Ward, Tokyo. The incident has become known as the joshikōsei konkurīto-zume satsujin-jiken, or the “concrete-encased high school girl murder case.”

The Shocking Sakakibara Case

Another case that shocked the nation was a series of attacks on children in Kobe. In February and March 1997 four schoolgirls were attacked—pounded with a hammer or stabbed—leaving one girl dead and two seriously injured. And in May of that year a fifth-grade boy was killed and his decapitated head left in front of a school gate. A note to police, signed by “Sakakibara Seito,” announcing that more murders would follow was found stuffed in the boy’s mouth. The killer turned out to be a 14-year-old youth who lived nearby. These attacks came to be known collectively as the “Sakakibara case.”

Other heinous juvenile crimes include the rape and killing of a young mother and the strangling of her baby daughter in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in April 1999; the hijacking of a Nishitetsu bus and stabbing to death of a passenger in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, in May 2000; and the multiple stabbing/murder of a family of six in Oita Prefecture in August 2000. These led in 2001 to the first revision of the Juvenile Act in 52 years, lowering the punishable age from 16 to 14.

Tougher Penalties for Heinous Juvenile Crimes

A 2007 amendment lowered the age limit for sentencing to a reformatory from 14 to “around 12.” This may have been in response to the abduction and killing of a young boy by a 12-year-old in Nagasaki in July 2003 and the box cutter stabbing death of a sixth-grade girl by her 11-year-old classmate in Sasebo in June 2006.

A further amendment in 2008 cleared the way for victims or surviving family members to attend court hearings of violent juvenile crimes resulting in death or injury. This came in the wake of the 2004 enactment of legislation designed to protect the rights of crime victims. Then a revision in 2014 raised the number of years that under-18-year-olds can be sentenced short of a life term from 15 to 20. The term of indefinite servitude was also raised from “5 to 10 years” to “10 to 15 years.”

Many argue that harsher measures are unlikely to reduce crimes by minors, but the police white paper notes that the total number of arrests for juvenile crimes declined from 134,847 in 2004 to 56,469 in 2013 and that the number of violent crimes (murder, armed robbery, rape, arson, etc.) fell from 1,584 to just 786 over the same span. Crimes may now be committed by younger offenders, but the number of cases does not appear to be on the rise.

Lowering of the Voting Age

Media coverage of shocking incidents like the February 2015 Kawasaki murder invariably elicits calls for young criminals to be tried as adults. It should be pointed out, though, that recent moves to amend the Juvenile Act are not so much in reaction to the brutality of the crimes committed but to the likely enactment during the current Diet session of a bill lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. If 18-year-olds have the right to vote, the argument goes, they should be treated as adults rather than being protected as minors. There is a possibility, therefore, that the age of legal adulthood in Japan may return to the prewar level of 18.

(Banner photo: News cameras in front of Kawasaki Police Station follow a van carrying a boy arrested for the murder of 13-year-old Uemura Ryōta. ©Jiji Photo.)

Juveniles Arrested for Criminal Offenses, 2004–13

Year 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Crime type
Number 134,847 123,715 112,817 103,224 90,966
 Felony 1,584 1,441 1,170 1,042 956
 Assault 11,439 10,458 9,817 9,248 8,645
 Theft 76,637 71,147 62,637 58,150 52,557
 White-collar crime 1,240 1,160 1,294 1,142 1,135
 Indecency 344 383 346 341 389
 Other 43,603 39,126 37,553 33,301 27,284
Year 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Crime type
Number 90,282 85,846 77,696 65,448 56,469
 Felony 949 783 785 836 786
 Assault 7,653 7,729 7,276 7,695 7,210
 Theft 54,784 52,435 47,776 38,370 33,134
 White-collar crime 1,144 978 971 962 878
 Indecency 399 437 466 566 523
 Other 25,353 23,484 20,422 17,019 13,938

Source: Police white paper, 2014.

Postwar Amendments to the Juvenile Act

Date Enforced Main Provisions Revised Incident(s) Triggering the Revisions
January 1, 1949 New Juvenile Act implemented to replace prewar law. Age of legal adulthood raised from 18 to 20; family court established to decide on punitive or reformatory measures, etc. Japan accepts the Potsdam Declaration, ending World War II. SCAP implements Occupation policies (August 1945 to April 1952).
April 1, 2001 Punishable age lowered from 16 to 14 Concrete-encased schoolgirl murder in Tokyo (November 1988 to January 1989, committed by four youths aged 16–18) Sakakibara case in Kobe (February–June 1997, committed by 14-year-old)Rape/murder in Hikari (April 1999, committed by 18-year-old) Nishitetsu bus hijacking (May 2000, committed by 17-year-old)Murder/injury of family of six in Oita Prefecture (August 2000, committed by 15-year-old)
November 1, 2007 Police investigative powers enhanced for crimes committed by youths under 14Age limit for sentencing to reformatory lowered from 14 to “around 12” Abduction/killing of young boy in Nagasaki (July 2003, committed by 12-year-old)Stabbing death of sixth-grade girl in Sasebo (June 2006, committed by 11-year-old classmate)
December 15, 2008 Victims/surviving family members able to attend court hearings of violent crimes resulting in death or injury Enactment of law to protect the rights of crime victims (2004)
May 7, 2014 Number of years under-18-year-olds can be sentenced short of a life term raised from 15 to 20, and term of indefinite servitude raised from “5 to 10 years” to “10 to 15 years” Murder/injury of three in Ishinomaki (February 2010, committed by two youths aged 17 and 18)Attack and murder of woman in Kichijoji (February 2013, committed by two youths aged 17 and 18)Schoolgirl lynching and death in Kure (June 2013, committed by 21-year-old man and six minors, male and female, aged 16–17)Murder of ninth-grade girl in Mie Prefecture (August 2013, committed by 18-year-old)
Murder of tenth-grade girl in Sasebo (July 2014, committed by 15-year-old girl)Murder of elderly woman in Nagoya (December 2014, committed by 19-year-old female university student)Murder of Uemura Ryōta in Kawasaki (February 2015, committed by 18-year-old and two 17-year-olds)

Compiled by Nippon.com editorial department.

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