Monday Mystery: Setagaya Family Murders

Just a short one this week. In 2000, in the Setagaya district of Tokyo, the Miyazawa family were found brutally murdered in their own home. Reddit has some excellent write-ups in their Unresolved Mysteries forum here and here -- WARNING: The murders were fairly gruesome, and the writeups are very accurate -- including photos of the scene, and of the models created in 2013 for virtual walkthroughs.

What caught my attention here were some of the clues. When you're solving a mystery, what you're looking for are things that are either indicative or out of place. Which things those are depends to a surprising extent on the surrounding culture.

There was beer in the victims' refrigerator. The murderer snacked before leaving, but took none of the beer. In the US, nobody would even bother to write that down, but in Japan, the drinking culture is so strong -- particularly for young men, which the perp was assumed to be -- that it was specifically noted that he hadn't taken any of the alcohol. It was so odd to them that they even posited that the murderer might be a teetotaler.

One of the write-ups mentions a ways down that the way the documents were strewn about suggested to the police that the murderer might not have been able to read kanji. Literacy is a pretty binary thing, in English; you can read stuff or you can't, more or less. Maybe you don't know a particular word, but you know enough to sound it out or look it up, if you're motivated enough. The Japanese writing system, on the other hand, consists of two phonetic syllabaries and a load of ideographs. It's entirely possible to be able to read the phonetic syllabaries but not the ideographs, or to only be able to read some of the ideographs. (Reading Japanese can get weird; the subvocalization cuts in and out, depending on whether I know what it means, how it's read aloud -- and possibly, though not necessarily, what that sequence of sounds means -- both, or neither. I get by well enough for video games and some books, but I wouldn't want to plow through geopolitical news or do my taxes without a good dictionary.) It would take a hell of a lot to make an American cop wonder if the perp couldn't read, but in Japanese? You're still getting literacy skills all the way through high school. Drop out and God knows what you'd miss.

At least one of the write-ups points out the racial background of the murderer, despite the fact that the cops technically don't know who the hell he is. The Japanese would not think twice about running DNA for that. Try it in North America and you'd have protesters swarming your building and screaming through the windows in five minutes flat. It's easier in Japan; the population is much more homogeneous, genetically-speaking, than the US, which in happier pre-Trump days was proud of its reputation as a mixing pot of immigrants. They're also still a wee bit insular, by which I mean that by western standards they are horrifically if politely xenophobic. There's a population of zainichi (lit. "stay in Japan") Koreans there who are still treated basically as dirty foreigners, even though some of the families have been physically born and raised in Japan for several generations now.

Check the category label for more Monday Mysteries!