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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (February 2, 2005)

Murder Trial Harms Japan-China Ties

Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

Near the end of January, a Chinese provincial court found two Chinese nationals guilty of the brutal murder in June 2003 of an entire Japanese family 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 January, 24, 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, 24, 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, 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 Hina.

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 November.

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 detail.

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 100,000 level.

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 relations 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 note.

Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 27 January 2005,, and is republished with permission.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications