Killer’s legacy builds bridges

Royalties help link Japan's truants to Peru's working kids

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One of the last wishes of executed mass murderer Norio Nagayama has helped to link Japanese kids who refuse to go to school with working children in Peru.

Four-time killer Nagayama, who became a well-known writer while behind bars, made a will before his execution in August 1997 at the age of 48 to set up a fund using his book royalties to aid poor children around the world, enabling a Peruvian girl to visit Tokyo three years after his death.

During her visit, Patricia Cruzado Munoz, a member of Mnnatsop, an association of some 10,000 working children in Peru aimed at improving their working conditions, talked about her organization’s activities with members of Tokyo Shure, a free school for children who stay away from regular schools.

“Our meeting with Patricia stirred us to know more about Peruvian children and Mnnatsop activities. Our members held a series of study sessions on Peru and hoped to visit the country some day,” said Keiko Okuchi, who founded Tokyo Shure in 1985.

Okuchi, a former elementary school teacher, set up the school to provide a place for absentee children to go and where their parents can find support, after her own children refused to go to school.

At present, about 200 enrollees, aged from 6 to 20, attend classes and club activities at the school in Kita Ward.

Okuchi and some Tokyo Shure members made their hoped-for visit to Peru in October, and have invited Peruvian children to Japan again this December to further deepen ties.

Three children and two others are scheduled to attend symposiums on children’s rights in Japan.

“We could not have seen Patricia and the Peruvian children if it had not been for Mr. Nagayama. It seems to me it was not just a coincidental encounter if I take his upbringing into consideration,” Okuchi said.

Nagayama was born into an extremely poor family. His father died by the roadside and his mother left him in a bleak house in the middle of winter when he was 5 years old.

After leaving his village in Aomori Prefecture for Tokyo at age 15, he changed jobs frequently and insisted in his trial that it was poverty and ignorance that ultimately led him to kill four people in 1968 at the age of 19.

Two years after a lower court handed down the death sentence in 1979, the Tokyo High Court commuted Nagayama’s sentence to life in prison, saying, “The government should have saved the accused from his poor surroundings. It would be unfair to ignore the lack of proper welfare policies and lay all the responsibility to him.”

On appeal by prosecutors, however, the Supreme Court ordered a high court retrial, which eventually reversed its earlier decision and sentenced him to death.

Nagayama began writing novels in jail, based on his impoverished childhood, with his autobiographical “Muchi no Namida” (“Tears of Ignorance”) becoming a best seller in 1971. He also received a literary award for his 1983 book “Kibashi” (“Wooden bridge”).

He donated the resulting royalties to relatives of his victims as a sign of contrition, though some refused to accept them.

“Mr. Nagayama wanted to save poor children like himself from poverty and ignorance so they could lead decent lives, as he believed that is the best way to create a society without crime,” said his lawyer, Kyoko Otani.

The working children in Peru expressed sympathy for the absentee schoolchildren in Japan, who are often criticized as being self-indulgent, according to Okuchi.

The members of Tokyo Shure published a booklet recently based on their trip to Peru, in which they said, “We have faced discrimination for refusing to go to school, and Mnnatsop members have also faced prejudice because they are working children. We could understand each other as we share the same experience.”

“It is nice that the seed planted by Mr. Nagayama has bloomed into friendship beyond national borders,” Otani said.

Looking back on the trip, Okuchi said, “These kids in Japan and working children in Peru are both struggling to live humanely. I think it is significant they have been united through Mr. Nagayama, who took to crime during an inhumane life.”