Home > Focus on Japan 2005 > Rosu no Dai-Ikkyu Satsujin

Rosu no Dai-Ikkyu Satsujin

November 2nd, 2005

I was just recently reminded of a story I haven’t told on this blog yet, so here goes. There was a case twenty years ago concerning a Japanese woman living in Los Angeles named Fumiko Kimura. In 1985, Kimura, her husband and two children were U.S. immigrants in Santa Monica, CA. At one point, Kimura discovered that her husband was having an affair. Distraught, she eventually decided to commit suicide. She took a bus to the beach with her two children and walked them into the surf. The children drowned, but Kimura was rescued before she died. Back when I lived in Japan and this was a story in the news, I read about it and was more familiar with the case than I am now; I know there were more details (for example, I believe she was found by a couple jogging on the beach, one or both of whom were med students), but I can’t recall them all nor can I readily find more details on the Internet. But the story still has very interesting aspects.

You see, Kimura was charged with the first-degree murder of her two children, and it was argued that cultural considerations should be taken into account: in Japan, oyako shinju (親子心中) sometimes happens when a woman decides to commit suicide and takes her children with her. I’ve heard it explained in two ways: the first is that the mother feels so strongly that her children are a part of her, if she decides to commit suicide, leaving her children behind would be like leaving her arms or legs behind. The second, most commonly recounted on the Internet (which may have a single common source that just got repeated) is that it would be unthinkable to leave her children to suffer the shame she is leaving. Both may be true, I don’t know. But it does happen, and in Japan, it has been known to merit a lenient sentence.

The case prompted an outpouring of support from the Asian-American community, where her feelings and actions, if not necessarily approved of, were at least better understood; a “Fumiko Kimura Fair Trial Committee” was formed, 25,000 names were signed to a petition asking for leniency. It was argued that it was her culture, the way she was brought up, the way she thought and believed.

Her lawyers, however, argued this not wholly as a cultural defense (which would have required Kimura to be thinking clearly and believing what she did was right, not a good legal argument in the U.S.) but that it was a case of temporary insanity with cultural connotations. Six psychologists testified to that effect, using in part as evidence that she could not differentiate her life from her children’s. (Interesting–were they stating that a cultural view was a type of insanity?) The culture/insanity defense sounds like a wink-wink kind of strategy, trying to have it both ways–I’d love to see the court transcripts to see how it was argued.

In the end, the court did not decide: a plea bargain was worked out, where Kimura pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter (on the premise there was no malice), and was released on time served (she had spent a year in jail while her case was prosecuted), with five years’ probation and mandatory counseling. She later reunited with her husband.

A few years later, a Japanese television network decided to make a TV movie based upon the incident; it was broadcast bilingually, with an English audio track over a Japanese-language television movie, something that rarely if ever happened. I looked forward to the movie. At that time, I was still in my funk about foreigners being looked down upon in Japan, seen all too often in the media as violent criminals or disease carriers. One drama show had a couple visit Hawaii, only to become victims of five violent crimes within a few days. My students back then were fearful to travel to the U.S. because of the idea of the U.S. being too violent–more fearful than they are today about terrorism, in fact. There was even a Japanese man who wanted to kill his wife, and so traveled with her to America; he had her killed there, counting on the specter of a violent America to remove suspicion from himself (I can’t find this anywhere, does anyone remember his name?). At first it worked, with Japanese and Americans believing it, until the truth was found out.

[Update: found it. It was Kazuyoshi Miura, who first allegedly tried to kill his wife, Kazumi, in 1981 in Los Angeles by having his soft-porn actress girlfriend beat Kazumi over the head, and then a few months later Kazumi was shot dead (with Kazuyoshi lightly wounded in the leg). Kazumi lingered in a coma for a year and then died, and Miura received 80 million yen from two insurance policies he’d placed on his wife with him as the beneficiary. The case, as I recall, spurred a great deal of “America-is-violent” reactions in Japan, which Miura allegedly used to divert suspicion from himself. It seems to have worked, until in 1984 when a weekly magazine identified him as the killer. He also allegedly had a girlfriend killed in Los Angeles in 1979. He was charged with the beating incident in 1985 and the murder in 1988; he was eventually sentenced to life in prison in 1994, but was acquitted on appeal in 1998, which was upheld by a higher court in 2003. Last heard from, he was arrested for shoplifting in 2003.]

So at that time, I looked forward to the dramatization of the Kimura case; it had a good many positive aspects that could be brought out in the telling. The personal drama and the cultural differences would have been compelling–but it could also show America to Japan in a better light, as a country trying to understand and accept various cultures, in contrast to stereotyping and discriminating.

Boy, was I let down. The movie, titled “The First-Degree Murderer of Los Angeles” (ロスの第一球殺人, or Rosu no Dai-Ikkyu Satsujin), was “based upon a real story,” but trashed the reality, changing everything to reinforce the stereotypes I had hoped it would help dismiss. I know, what should I expect and all, but I didn’t think they’d go as far as they did. The central elements–a Japanese woman in America, her husband wrongs her, she commits oyako shinju and is charged with murder–were still there. But the rest was unrecognizable.

In the TV movie, Kimura had only one child (the reason will become apparent later), a small boy, and had come to America with her husband, who ran a construction firm or some other kind of like business. She spoke no English and was totally isolated, alone with her son. The filmmakers went to great length to make her into a heroine; for example, in one scene, she rescued someone else’s child from being run over by a motorcyclist (more on that later). One day, her husband did not return home. In the story, he ran off with the payroll for his business, leaving the American workers without pay. She hoped and hoped and hoped he’d return, but he never did. She started to run out of money, and the blue-collar workers at her husband’s firm came by all the time, banging on the door and screaming for their money, with our protagonist huddling fearfully with her small boy inside the locked house.

Finally, without anyone to help, her money running out, losing hope her husband would ever return and living in fear every day, she decided to commit oyako shinju, killing her son first and then killing herself. So she went to her boy’s room to smother him with a pillow. But while she was doing it, her boy laughed, thinking it was a game. Suddenly, she was overcome with love for her boy, and so instead of killing him and committing suicide, she heroically decided to brave it out and persevere. So she went to the kitchen to prepare her son’s favorite deep-fried dish. After she got the burner going under the pot of oil full-blast, the doorbell rang. It was her husband! she thought–he’s back and everything will be fine now! But when she went and opened the door, it was two big, burly American men who were looking for her husband. They threw her roughly to the floor and after not spotting her husband around, naturally decided to violently rape our protagonist.

As they were doing this, the pot of oil boiled over, and within half a minute the entire kitchen was on fire. When the two blue-collar-workers-turned-rapists saw the smoke, one shouted “let’s get outta here!” and they both fled, leaving our heroine beaten and senseless on the living room floor. As the smoke filled the house with incredible speed, the son called out for help. This brought our heroine out of her stupor; she valiantly got up and tried to rescue her son, putting her hand over his mouth and nose to protect him from the smoke. However, somewhere along the fifteen feet from his bed to the front door, she collapsed, her hand still covering his mouth.

Firefighters came and pulled them out. The boy had died from suffocation. They found her suicide note and assumed she had killed her son. She was charged with first-degree murder, and despite her story of the rapists and her sterling reputation as a child rescuer, an American jury found her guilty and sentenced her to two years in prison.

So you can see how I was disappointed. The relevance of oyako shinju and the cultural relativism were completely removed, and instead of an America sympathetic to other points of view, we again see a violent America inhospitable to Japanese who would dare go there. The motorcycle incident was one element of this, though indirect. The scene was shot so that the small child in danger was in the middle of the street, and the motorcycle was bearing straight down on the child from a distance, with no turns or obstacles to make it seem like an accident. It was not a car with the driver distracted; it was not a case of the child suddenly running out into the street from behind a parked vehicle. It was a motorcyclist apparently intent on running down the child. Why do that, making it seem as malicious as possible, when it would be far easier to make it seem like an impending accident?

The film recast the Japanese character into a heroic, selfless, and sinless heroine with few if any faults, and Americans as the villains (her husband simply absent from the scene). The guilty sentence at the end does not make sense and seems a callous slap in the face, and all possible positive or redemptive qualities of the story were removed and replaced with base, discriminatory stereotypes. And unfortunately, it was more or less the rule and not the exemption for Japanese media at the time.

Today, things are a lot different, as I have pointed out before. It would be interesting to see the same story told again, this time from a more constructive and realistic point of view.

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  1. November 3rd, 2005 at 06:45 | #1

    I don’t know if it was based on a true story (as Law & Orders often are) but that one story you described was the synopsis of the episode “Gaijin”: http://www.episodelist.com/site/index.php?go=episodes.view&episode_id=9047

    This is an interesting blog entry, thanks for posting it. :)

  2. Luis
    November 3rd, 2005 at 12:42 | #2

    I would not doubt that said episode is ‘based upon’ the incident I described. I came across the Law & Order episode description while trying to find out more about the true event, and made the same observation you did. Some differences exist, of course–I’m fairly sure the yakuza were not involved, and I seem to recall that the husband had himself shot in the leg or someting to further allay suspicion. When I find out about it, I’ll add it to the blog entry.

  3. Luis
    November 3rd, 2005 at 13:19 | #3

    Found it! Kazuyoshi Miura. Read the Update in the blog entry above for details.

  4. November 8th, 2005 at 15:57 | #4

    > it was argued that cultural considerations should be
    > taken into account: in Japan [insert justification for
    > doing something you should not be doing]

    Isn’t that one of the silliest and dreaded things that can pop up in conversations with or about Japanese people or problems?

    “Bad things” will always be “bad things”, no matter the culture. Arguing culturally undermines human rights and diminishes your personal or organisational integrity and credibility. It’s certainly a valid excuse, but still remains an excuse.

  5. Luis
    November 9th, 2005 at 03:38 | #5


    Not always. Cultural relativism can be seen as legitimate in many cases. Even within the US, abortion stands as one example–in Christian culture, it’s murder, evil; outside, it’s more often seen as neutral, especially within the first few weeks after conception; abortion clinic protests and even bombings can be seen as evil or heroic depending on how you view the issue. Both views can be contextually sound, but the contrast can prompt a sense of wrongness when one side looks at the other. Many aspects of American individualism can be seen as wrong in Japanese culture, and aspects of Japanese culture alien to us can seem improper. I recall American pro-feminists back in the 80’s criticizing the Japanese more to steer woman to being a mother and housewife, and many Japanese women resenting that view as a denigration to a way of life they preferred. This can be tested out big or small, important or nagging, world-shaking or trivial. But in reality, there are very, very few absolutes; even killing, suicide, war and torture can be seen from extreme ends of a spectrum, often times based on culture. To say that something is always bad or evil is, if you will forgive me, a bit culturally arrogant. And remember, our own culture tends to rationalize war, killing, vengeance and a lot of other stuff that a lot of other people would simply consider unacceptable under any circumstances. Was it good to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? Ask different people.

    The concepts of “good” and “bad” are highly relativistic. As for oyako shinju being a “valid excuse,” that sounds like an oxymoron unless an “excuse” is an acceptable reason for something happening. Is not an “excuse” reasonable when valid? Your end statement seems to use the word “excuse” to denigrate, as if it is not valid. If it is “valid,” then how is it not reasonable or acceptable?

  6. Rose
    August 5th, 2008 at 07:21 | #6

    Does anyone know if Fumiko Kimura had any other children after her court case was over? Thanks.

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