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Commentary (November 17, 2004)

Fukuoka murders put pressure on Japan's Chinese community

Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

The brutal slaying of a Japanese couple and their young children by a gang of Chinese students last year still haunts Japan's Chinese community and unfairly poisons Japanese attitudes toward China and the Chinese.

The first verdicts in China (two of the three accused fled to China, where they are on trial; one remains in Japan) in the high-profile case are imminent, and many Chinese residents of Japan fear that the announcement will spark another round of negative media coverage. As a result of the killings in June 2003, the number of Chinese students allowed into Japan has been drastically restricted. Many in the Chinese community feel that the press is stereotyping them as criminal, fueling a rising tide of anti-Chinese sentiment.

These troubling domestic developments come at a time when bilateral relations between Tokyo and Beijing are strained, most recently by the suspected incursion of a Chinese nuclear submarine into Japanese territorial waters. With both domestic and international issues dominated by negative images of China, the prospects for improving relations with the Middle Kingdom do not look promising.

The cold-blooded murder of the Matsumoto family in the southern Japanese city of Fukuoka is still the most emotive domestic issue clouding Sino-Japanese skies at a time of strong economic ties. Three Chinese students, Wang Liang, 22, Yang Ning, 24, and Wei Wei, 24, broke into the Matsumoto house to steal money and then brutally killed two children and their parents for about 37,000 yen in cash (about US$350). The trio later dumped the bodies in the nearby Hakata Bay, attaching weights so that the corpses would not float.

Wang and Yang fled to China, while Wei was arrested by the Japanese police and is currently on trial in Fukuoka for murder. China apprehended Wang and Yang in August 2003, indicting them in July this year. While Japan's slow justice system is still dealing with Wei, judgment in the Chinese trial appears imminent. The accused, who have admitted their guilt, are expected to receive death sentences because prosecutors have demanded "severe penalties".

The prosecutors publicly acknowledged that the murders had an extremely negative effect on Chinese students in Japan, and expressed concern about the damage done to "the friendship between our two nations".

Besides catching and putting the culprits on trial, the Chinese authorities went to extraordinary lengths to assist their Japanese counterparts and offered support to the relatives of the slain family. In a rare move, the Japanese media were allowed to cover the Chinese legal proceedings and Japanese translation was provided for key sections of the trial. Despite this unprecedented level of cooperation, the Japanese media have almost exclusively focused on the negative aspects of the case.

A Chinese student, who did not wish to be named, told Asia Times Online, "This is a truly terrible crime. I feel so sad for the little children, but why are the newspapers and TV just concentrating on the nationality of the killers? Japanese people have committed crimes like this in the past. Chinese people are just as shocked by what happened, but the media [seem] to be blaming us for it."

Dr Tom Ellis, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at Portsmouth University in the United Kingdom, offered a simple explanation. He observed, "It is an unfortunate fact that a murder committed by a foreigner is far more newsworthy than a within-nation domestic-violence death."

Right-wing politicians, such as Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, are exploiting this case and other crimes committed by foreigners, generating anti-Chinese sentiment and xenophobia. Alarmingly, many ordinary Japanese believe Chinese and other foreign residents are largely responsible for recently rising crime rates, even though police statistics clearly show that foreign criminals account for only a minute fraction of all crimes.

William Stonehill, a foreign businessman and long-term Tokyo resident, summed up the feeling of many foreign citizens: "The number of crimes committed by foreigners is microscopic, and the whole notion of a foreign crime wave is an exaggeration of the Japanese government."

Professor Richard Friman, director of the Institute for Transnational Justice at Marquette University in Wisconsin, described the phenomenon more dispassionately. He said, "Shintaro Ishihara has demonstrated that crime, especially foreign crime, works as an electoral/power-base issue, and on a national level Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers have followed suit. The appeal of the issue is not a new discovery for Japan and certainly not a new discovery elsewhere in the world."

Over the past two decades, crimes committed by foreigners have never exceeded about 4% of all crime in Japan, and typically the yearly average has been between 2% and 3%. Foreigners currently make up just over 1% of Japan's total population, so they are only slightly over-represented in the figures. Despite this, the police, lawmakers and the media have focused on foreign crime as if it were one of the most serious issues facing Japan. For example, five of the 16 annual Police White Paper policy reports published between 1987 and 2003 took crimes committed by foreigners as their main theme.

Dr Tom Ellis, the criminal-justice expert at Portsmouth University, explained why police forces tend to exaggerate the level of foreigner crime. He told Asia Times Online, "It is a virtually universal phenomenon that each nation finds it an appealing explanation that foreigners are far more likely to commit crimes than their own nationals. This is usually put down to cultural notions. In reality, there is often some truth in foreign or minority-group over-representation in crime, but not usually for cultural reasons. Rather, it is normally because immigrants are denied access to legitimate job markets, or at least access is far more difficult, and so involvement in illicit markets is likely to be slightly higher."

In response to the killing of the Matsumoto family, the government restricted the issuing of student visas, leading to an estimated 46% fall in the number of new students allowed to come to Japan during 2004. Surveys show that the vast majority of rejected student were Chinese.

In 2003, there were 109,508 foreign students in Japan, of which 64.7% hailed 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 100,000 level.

Ryoji Yamauchi, president of Asahikawa University, sees this as a backward step that will damage Sino-Japanese ties. He explained to Asia Times Online, "The government should definitely not try to restrict the number of Chinese students coming to Japan. If we are going to build a better, more internationally minded Japan, at ease with its neighbors, we desperately need as many of these young people as possible. When you see foreign and Japanese students having fun together, you know this is the future. I am proud of our foreign students - they add great dynamism to campus life and often excel. At a recent graduation, a female Korean student delivered the valedictory speech."

Yamauchi added, "The recent bad publicity generated by the murder of the Matsumoto family is regrettable. This was a highly exceptional case and the government and media should take a more responsible and measured attitude when discussing it. We need to build a better relationship with China. We certainly won't do this if we concentrate on rare acts of inhumanity and ignore all the bright young Chinese people [who] come to this country and make it a better place."

(This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 13 November 2004,, and is republished with permission. Copyright belongs to Asia Times Online Ltd.)

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