Greetings from Japan,
A year passes and life continues. That year can seem so short, and yet so eventful and important that it can also seem to have lasted longer than any other year since childhood, when each day seemed so long. I am just completing my eleventh year as a Daito professor, and that statement alone makes for a question of wonderment about where that decade went? This past year has not been on a par with that previous decade, but it is difficult to remember any time in adulthood that has been such a revelation. The new friends made, the countries visited, the family and friends revisited, and the creation of a new life in a new place, which then had to packed up, closed down, given away, put in storage, or disassembled for shipping to Japan.
This issue of time, and how quickly and eventfully it may seem to have passed came into sharp perspective last night, as I watched the evening TV news, mesmerised to the extent that I forgot to eat. A man, 78, former boxer and live-in soya bean factory worker (wait, it gets much odder), called Hakamada Iwao, was released from prison last night to a barrage of media interest. Why? Well, he was the world’s longest serving death-row prisoner, having been arrested in 1966, and sentenced to death in 1968 for the murder of his boss and family. This is the latest in a long line of cases where the suspect was interrogated in a manner more familiar to Guantanamo or Bagram inmates than those faced by ordinary civilians of democratic, peaceful states, with continuous verbal abuse, interrupted sleep, and limited access to anyone other than the questioning officers, resulting in an end to the ordeal being only admitting guilt. Hakamada was interrogated for a total of 240 hours, a few hours apart each time, so that he never got a proper sleep, never had enough food or water, never saw family or lawyer, and was left in his own sweat in the humid heat of Japanese high summer. He signed and spoke a confession, which he retracted at his trial, but he was found guilty anyway.
Now, all this is quite amazing. But there are even more extraordinary aspects to the case.
The death sentence was confirmed in 1976, and the Supreme Court confirmed this in 1980. So, he was confirmed as due to be killed 14 years after conviction. How long did those 14 years feel? How could a man remain sane in that time? How would you get through each day? His family filed a plea for a retrial in 1981. This was rejected, but only in 1994. Why did it take 13 years to consider? Is this not tantamount to a compounded abuse of a prisoner, even if a guilty prisoner? It took until 2004 for this decision to be upheld by the Tokyo High Court, and 2008 before the Supreme Court confirmed that decision.
Yesterday, the decision was made back at the lower level of the Shizuoka District Court, the original trial court, not that he was innocent, but that there were sufficient grounds for a re-trial. The judge stated that the grounds included the final acceptance of the convict’s lawyers that the bloodied clothing found should be DNA tested (previously rejected by all courts), which revealed that Hakamada couldn’t have worn them. It is perhaps revealing that this case followed the Ashikaga Murder Case of 1990, where the person convicted was released after more than 15 years on the grounds that the DNA proved him innocent and that police had bullied him into a confession, and that evidence had been fabricated. That case was lucky in having an expereinced investigative reporter following it up. The judge in the latest case has suggested impropriety on the part of police and public prosecutors, a very rare accusation in Japan.
And yet there remain so many questions. How would a man cope with prison when innocent? Or how would he cope with freedom after prison? But perhaps the more intriguing question is why he is free at all? Why wasn’t he executed? If the authorities were as sure as the repeated decisions of various courts suggest why wasn’t his life ended for the sake of perceived justice? While we can be glad that this wasn’t the case, the way in which this man has been treated suggests a rather cavalier approach to notions of justice and law by the judicial and legal authorities.
But on other matters, what of my domestic issues?
The last month in Cambridge was one of the busiest of my life with barely a free part of a day, but busy for mainly wonderful reasons, seeing new and old friends and meeting with the family. It was great to be able to meet up with my friends from the Faculty of Asian and Middle East Studies in Cambridge, and with lots of people related to my research interests. I’ve met my old friend Wilhelm more in the time he’s been at Oxford than we manage in Japan, and that is the beauty of the sabbatical, to free us up for broad-ranging and detailed discussions and cooperation.
The last few days were very stressful, with my family and wee Xia lending amazing support. My mother badgering me to allow her to clean more was possibly the first time I have heard of such a thing. She was rewarded with more cleaning, then a car ride to Middlesbrough stuffed into a tiny, almost air-tight, pocket packed in with duvets etc. Xia was weighed down with my cast-off food and stationery, and had to lug it all home to Grantchester.
Sadly, it left me shattered, and walking like John Wayne after a cattle-drive westward. Then I visited Michaela in Leeds, met up with Theresa and Andy, and had a wonderful time despite the weather. My step-brother, Ian, came to stay as he is retraining from mental health to baking, and is loving it and making amazing progress. My brother Peter was also visiting from London, and we had a great chance to spend time together, visit small towns around Teesside and we also were both rather worn out, so we were both lucky enough to catch the ‘flu. Sadly that was also when my sister was visiting, sandwiching her trip from Liverpool into a hectic work schedule. A few aching-bone-days later I was off from Durham Tees Valley (the world’s most convenient airport: no queues, no problems, free parking), to fly to Tokyo via KLM/Amsterdam. I arrived at the airport, had a longish wait for the three bags, then wondered yet again at how an incredibly busy takyubin courier desk where four staff dealt with mountains of luggage delivery requests in an operation of stunningly polite experienced efficiency. I left them at 10am, the bags were delivered to my house at 8pm, for less than 10 pounds each. Read this in Britain and weep.
Took the Narita Express and JR train home, and wondered at the dank, flat, grey weather, painting the scenery of Chiba and Tokyo a dank, grey, and depressing hue, and my heart sank. There were flashes of blossom to raise my heart, and the train guard, who could see I wasn’t in good shape and didn’t mind me sitting in the wrong seat, but made sure to tell me in English that I needed to change carriages as the train would split at Tokyo. I responded in Japanese, and he continued in English. Good English, and he was using this chance for practice. Taxi home, into my house, and then the realisation of what I was coming back to and what I had left in Middlesbrough and Cambridge. This was made rather worse by my physical condition, lack of sleep, and lack of a working mobile phone, house phone (apparently non-functioning, only emitting the irritating ‘on hold jingle’, or internet connection (needed to phone them and wait a few days, but tricky without a phone: could only think of pay phones by the station and 7-11, and didn’t fancy standing in the rain competing with train and road noise while talking in Japanese about contracts and modems).
Saw my lovely neighbours, the Endos who visited me in Cambridge, and chatted away, and then went to the shop to get some food, ate, and passed out on the floor for an hour. Then into Fujisawa to restart my mobile, stood for ages in a cheese-ticket line, then headed off to a shop to buy a new house phone. Again, mobbed by people buying white goods as the sales tax/VAT will rise from 5% to 8% on 1st April. Eventually a young guy came to help, he gave me some advice, and then he ran off to get the phone I wanted. Came back apologising that the stock had been discontinued. Chose another, off he went, came back sweating that this one could be delivered to me in three days. Chose a third, he said ‘we have it’ with great glee, and gave me a 500 yen (3 pound) discount. Back to mobile phone shop, lost my place in the line, but sympathy extended to me by young lad, who showed me the cheapest plan, easy to set up, need new phone, have one for free, all fine. Only colours in stock: canary yellow, or pink. No chance of changing later. I’ll pick up a white one on Friday. Have a new number as well.
Cycled home in the rain, set up my new home phone, and phoned the internet provider, only to find they had closed 10 minutes earlier. Such things do wonders for the spirit. Then as I was setting the day/time on the phone it rang, I thought it was broken, but answered it and found Sally in Kamakura was calling me, which really did give me a boost, although I had to cut her short as my bags were delivered then. Then Xia called from Cambridge asking after me, which was lovely. Then I ate my dinner (leftovers of lunch: salad and bread), had tea, and fell asleep on the floor. Woke up badly needing a shower and bed, but just as I was about to step in, a knock on the door, and it was my old mate Jonathan who had lived in my place from July to February, and had fixed a few things, and cleaned up a lot of the rubbish I had left, as well as taking care of the place alongside Andreas, Jennifer, Mika, and the Endos. He called in on his way home (not on the way at all) to see I was alright. Very nice, even if I couldn’t offer much entertainment and had to decline the offer of a beer in a bar. He left after 11 fortified by nothing stronger than my tea, biscuits, and BO.
In bed after midnight, slept well, but awake by 6am and aching. Not helped by a year of beds having softened my flabby body to the joys of futons on wooden floors. Felt like death only mildly reheated. Helped by the weather, chilly, grey, wet, as at least that keeps the appalling cedar pollen at bay, which within a few hours of returning had my nose and eyes streaming. Yes, my first day back was just lovely in so many ways.
Internet is still not on, but I have just spoken with the very kind Mr Arakawa about it and it will be back on this Sunday, 30th March, sometime! Mrs Endo dropped by to tell me that two builders will come by to assess and give quotes my kitchen floor that is a bit blistered and fraying, but the house was a tip, covered in my exploded baggage, so forced to shift and tidy. The chap came, saw, and quoted, and it was very cheap and practical, the man being the typical Japanese builder. Small, wiry, looks mid-50s, probably younger, tight perm, crawling around the floor, and saying there is no need for the additional expense of changing the whole lot, then asking me if I would be alright with that. No worries that I will understand, no foreigner complex, writes up his quote, a smile, says goodbye (apologising for having arrived 15 mins late, due to another job), can do it in half a day, just say when, and off in his truck in the rain. Again, in Britain, weep.
Forced out into the cold rain to reach to the café, my departure made easier by the constant scream of US Navy jets coming in to land at their Atsugi base 25km north of me, one of the things that I didn’t miss while living in Britain. Nothing quite like an F-18 with a very low cloud base, so that the jet noise bounces down from the cloud in a weird echo amplification. However, the café provides comfort in so many ways, for the internet still exists, it has survived without me for 48 hours, and the café offers (very hard seats that disconfigure me, and) a British 1980s music compilation collection. I sat and checked mail, and wrote, to the strains of The Cure, Bowie, Roxy Music and others. Not at all bad. Again, so interesting I forgot to eat. At this rate I may even lose of my excess British flab. Only time will tell. And we are back again to time.