This book is about the North Kanto Serial Young Girl Kidnapping and Murder Case (北関東連続幼女誘拐殺人事件), a serial kidnapping and murder of very young girls between 1976 and 1996. A man named Toshikazu Sugaya (菅家 利和) was arrested in 1991 and convicted for the murder of one of the victims.
Journalist Kiyoshi Shimizu started investigating the Sugaya case in 2007. He helped to prove Sugaya’s innocence, who has been released in 2009. In this book, Kiyoshi Shimizu tells about his four-year long battle to prove a man’s innocence and find the real culprit.
This book is a fascinating and horrifying read about a wrongful conviction and the incredible work made by journalist Shimizu to uncover the truth and bring the public’s attention to the case. The book is quite long however, and I found that the narrative flow that made the first half so engrossing tended to lose its strength in the second half, making for a more strenuous read. Still, a great book that I highly recommend if you are interested in this topic.
For the most part, I really loved this book and found that it was an excellent work of investigative journalism. Our author is neither a policeman, nor a lawyer, yet he investigated one of the murders, the Ashikaga murder (足利事件), much more thoroughly than the officials of the time ever did. The result is an engrossing true crime report of one of Japan’s most infamous examples of wrongful conviction.
The whole story is both horrifying and frustrating. Even though Sugaya has been released eventually, he still spent 17 years in prison. When evidence of justice miscarriage came to light, little has been done to settle things right, and the investigation was never reopened, leaving the families of victims in considerable despair.
This book, however, is mainly focused on the Ashikaga murder, and does not talk much about the four other kidnappings. This seems obvious if you know the details of the case and the role that the author has played in it, but I knew nothing at all when I started reading this book. This is why I was a little surprised by the content of the book in regard to the subtitle: 隠蔽された北関東連続幼女誘拐殺人事件. In fact, I think that the subtitle is here to underline the importance of treating the five cases as a serial kidnapping and murder case rather than to reflect the content of the book.
So for the most part, the book focuses on one case, and most of the investigative work was to prove Sugaya’s innocence. This was to me the best part of the book. The first half was really engrossing, it read like a work of fiction. The author tells us how he uncovered, one by one, all the intentional imprecisions, mistakes and concealment of facts that were made during the police investigation of the case. Reading about what the officials of the time said and did was truly enraging, and it is hard to believe that all of this really happened.
When it came to finding the real murderer and the aftermath of Sugaya’s release, I found that the book tended to lose the narrative flow that made its first half so addictive. Maybe it is just me, but I found it harder to follow the narration or to place the events in their chronological order. It sometimes felt like the author was jumping from one thing to another. I also found that the author had a tendency to quote a lot rather than paraphrasing or explaining what people had said, which I found sometimes annoying, especially for official reports.
A great part of the process to prove Sugaya’s innocence was DNA testing. While the results and the conclusions were horrifying to read, I also found that the explanations concerning how the testing works were too difficult for me to understand in Japanese. These made for a strenuous read at some points.
Towards the end of the book, a whole chapter is devoted to a totally different case: Michitoshi Kuma (久間 三千年) who has been arrested in 1994 in the Iizuka case (飯塚事件), sentenced to death in 1999 and executed in 2008. The investigation contains obviously false testimony and tampered DNA evidence. I had read about this case before in 『誰も知らない死刑の舞台裏』, but Kiyoshi Shimizu explains things in much more detail and the parallels he makes with the Ashikaga case are interesting.
Overall, I loved this book and it is a must read if you are interested in wrongful convictions and miscarriage of justice in general. However, for a book of that length, I also found that some important parts were missing. The book is mainly about the author’s own investigation and participation in the coverage of the case. I sometimes found that it lacked a more global view on the case. For example, I wish that the author had talked more about the work made by Sugaya’s lawyers and supporters. Similarly, the parts about identifying the real culprit felt strangely light and short (and as far as I am concerned, unconvincing) compared to the rest of the book.
Even though I found overall that the second half of the book does not have the strength of the first half, this book is still a fascinating read that I highly recommend it if you are interested in wrongful convictions.