Schreiber, author, journalist, and translator, has written extensively
on crime and criminals in medieval and modern Japan. He is the author
of Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan (Yenbooks, 1996), The
Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals (Kodansha
International, 2001), and editor/author of Tokyo Confidential:
Titillating Tales from Japan’s Wild Weeklies (East Publications,
2001). Tokyo Confidential is an anthology that grew out of
a page, known as “Waiwai,” carrying translated stories from Japanese
tabloid weeklies, which ran in the Mainichi Daily News from
1989 to 2001.
The Japan Times
resurrected the column under the title Tokyo Confidential. The
Japan Times describes these popular vernacular magazines as “often
salacious, libelous and utterly unreliable” but insightful on what the
Japanese are “really thinking.” According to Schreiber, the stories
in the column allow foreign readers a look into the “creative” side
of Japanese journalism, which is in supply. In The Dark Side,
he takes a wider view and surveys crime and criminality over 400 years
of Japanese history.
A Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native, he has resided in Asia, including
Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Guam, since 1965. Before turning to writing
he worked as a retail store manager, travel agent, translator, software
documentation writer and market researcher. Schreiber graduated from
Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in Asian Studies in
1969. He is fluent in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese and has a passing
familiarity with perhaps half a dozen other languages.
Interview: May 10, 2003
In Writers.net, you are described as particularly interested in crime
history, sadomasochism, mystery fiction set in Asia. You’ve lived in
Japan more or less since 1965 can you tell us about how you came to
In spring of 1965, I was about to finish high school when the U.S. Army
assigned my father to Okinawa, which at that time was not under Japanese
control but still administered by the U.S. government. I was still only
17 and my folks didn’t want to leave me behind alone in the States,
so I went along with them and attended the University of Maryland overseas
division on Okinawa for my first year of college. Then in 1966 I transferred
to a college here in Tokyo, ICU, and was pretty much on my own after
Why crime? Did you always have an interest in crime?
I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction. While I was in high school,
British author Ian Fleming, creator of
James Bond, was unbelievably popular so I developed a taste for
spy novels set in exotic locales. Then at age 17 I found myself in Asia.
Then I was stuck on Guam managing a retail store from 1971 to 1972,
and, because there wasn’t much to do on such a small island, I spent
a lot of my free time in the public library. It was there that I discovered
Canadian author Ross MacDonald, whose mystery, The Chill, literally
blew my mind. I read all MacDonald’s works and then went looking to
see what other mystery novels were out there.
After that I got into stories set in Asia or involving Asia characters,
and have made this a lifelong study. I have an enormous book collection
at home, perhaps 8,000 volumes, made up mostly of novels and pulp magazines
from the 1920s and 1930s when “Yellow Peril” stories were in vogue.
I fund my acquisitions by reviewing contemporary fiction for several
publications. I’ve read and re-read the Judge Dee novels written in
the 1950s and 1960s by the late Dutch author Robert van Gulik. More
than any other books I’ve read, these were what inspired me to write
What’s in your own dark past?
Ha! You’ll have to wait for my autobiography, if I ever get around
to writing it.
Can you tell us a little about your most recent book, The Dark
Side, Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals (2001). What are your
One of the things, I feel, many westerners don’t fully appreciate
is the wonderful ability of Japanese writers to bring to life accounts
of their own historical events. I was able to write The Dark Side because
they did an incredible job of collecting and preserving these wonderful
old true crime stories. I could have easily written twice as much. But
the Mainichi folded in March 2001, so the series—called “Crime and Punishment
in Old Japan”—came to an end. By that time, Kodansha International was
ready to go with what we already had. I am glad that this book could
be produced by a Japanese publisher, by the way; our working relationship
was excellent and they’ve been very friendly and supportive.
What do you think crime and criminality say about a society? Can crime
be simply senseless and random or is it always rooted in societal ills?
For example, what does the Jun Hase case, in which fourteen year old
boy decapitated an eleven year old boy and left his head at a school
gate, say about Japan? Or what about individual in Niigata whose mother
did not realize that he had abducted a girl and kept her in his room
for nine years? Or the Aum cult?
These, I think, were rather extreme aberrations that happened to
occur in Japan. I don’t know how to draw any real conclusions from them.
But there are cases that do fit into a broader social context, or, if
you prefer, a pattern. For example, so-called toshi-gata hanzai
(urban-type crimes) became more pronounced from the 1960s when Japanese
communities began losing their close-knit nature and criminals could
take advantage of the anonymity afforded by the large cities. Certainly
the Aum Supreme Truth was of great interest to me, because I had a ringside
seat to a lot of their shenanigans. I even rode the Tokyo subway the
day they gassed it— although not until around evening, long after the
all-clear was sounded.
Much of what went on was a case of watching and reporting news in real
time. Aum’s publishing arm was located ten minutes’ walk from my house,
and they had another branch not far away. It’s funny how people never
noticed those wackos until they went off the deep end. There seems to
be no shortage of flaky new religions in this country.
What aspects, if at all, of crime in Japan are unique? Or is crime
universal? What are the main motivations from criminal activity in modern
Well, let’s exempt organized crime—which feeds on vices like drugs,
gambling and prostitution —and just deal with general mayhem, okay?
I see things from three perspectives: One, crime that reflects economic
and social change. When the economy sours, thefts go up. When the family
disintegrates, juvenile crime goes up. These are transitory phenomena
with fairly well understood causes.
Most criminals, fortunately, tend to be a rather stupid bunch, and putting
them away is just a matter of making the effort. On a deeper level,
however, are the psychological crimes. Some people, for reasons not
yet well understood, have a propensity to commit “copycat” crimes, and
these can be quite scary. So-called “delusionary” crimes, like stalking,
eavesdropping, peeping, pedophilia, underwear theft, etc. on occasion
cross the line and become rapes, abductions and murders. It’s hard to
prevent, and the police have been slow to update their methods for dealing
Finally, “internationalization” of crime is a real problem here and
will probably remain so. There is a tendency for the Japanese authorities
and media to refer to foreign criminals as “mafia,” but at present it
would appear that foreign criminals are pretty much subcontractors for
the yakuza.there are tori-ma, random slashers who just go off the deep
end and start killing people, like the nut case who cut up those kids
at the Kyoto primary school.
While we would all probably agree that walking around Tokyo’s Yoyogi
Koen after dark is a lot safer than walking around Central Park in New
York, do you think Japan is really a safe country? Or is it a myth?
Tokyo is relatively safe, but its bed towns are a lot less so. Once
when I did a piece on juvenile crime for Japan Quarterly magazine,
I asked a high school boy in Chigasaki about bullying. He told me there
are some really mean and crazy kids out there, and you never want to
meet their gaze on the train because they’ll immediately pick a fight
with you. Hot rodder gangs run wild in Tokyo’s distant suburbs. They’re
a big problem in Hiroshima too. The media reports it, but with a very
few exceptions leaves out that many of those Hiroshima kids have buraku
backgrounds, i.e., they’re not just rebelling against adults, but against
entrenched social discrimination against the descendants of the former
outcast class. Japanese society is certainly not the harmonious place
Have trends in crime changed markedly from postwar to present day
Japan? What differences have you seen? Any constants? What sort of crime
trends do you see going forward? What sorts of crime do you think will
increase? What sorts of crimes are waning in popularity?
Not long ago, a Japanese asked me if I thought Japan had changed
over the past two or three decades that I had been living there. But
even in the Edo period, from what I’ve read, there was a very lackadaisical
attitude toward ethical concerns, such public servants accepting gifts
and so on. Since the collapse of the bubble economy it’s generally agreed
that the gap between the rich and the poor seems to be increasing and
if Japan becomes a society of haves and have-nots, this could lead to
more crimes against property as well as more violent crimes. At the
moment, aside from military bases I’m not aware of any walled communities
manned by security guards in Japan, like they have in the U.S. But if
security worsens it could conceivably happen here. That would spell
the end of the “egalitarian” society.
What sort of crimes captures Japanese media attention? What causes
a media frenzy? What sort of crimes go largely unnoticed? Why do you
think “true crime” fascinates people?
All the cases that appear in my books were notorious in their own
time, which is why they are remembered and written about today. I try
whenever possible to show how the media responded. It’s been said that
fascination with true crime is a reflection on how far we’ve come, in
the quality of life, in that we need to read about crime because there
is so little involvement with it in our own lives. This may make sense.
Most of the friends I have in the police don’t enjoy reading about it.
As for the criminals, some day I’ll have to ask one if he likes Perry
From all your research, do you have any “favorite” crimes or criminals?
Have you found anything close to the perfect crime?
Both the Teikoku Bank poisonings and Shimoyama Incident, involving the
mysterious death of the president of the Japan National Railways, which
took place in 1948 and 1949, respectively, have never been satisfactorily
explained. Part of the reason why they were never solved was the poor
forensic police techniques at the time. The robbery in December 1968
where a man masquerading as a motorcycle policeman stole 100 million
yen from Toshiba is another classic puzzler.
Where does most of your information come from; court documents, tabloids
weeklies, “sport” papers, police reports? Do you depend on media sources
or have done some of your own sleuthing? Have you interviewed criminals?
Have you had any hairy personal experiences in the course of your research?
For the historical crimes, the research was mostly secondary, although
I did make an effort to track down the severed penis of Kichizo Ishida,
the man who had his manhood sliced off by his lady friend, the notorious
Sada Abe, in 1936. It was last seen at a department store exhibition
in 1949. It is probably still in the specimen room at Tokyo University
hospital, but their records were a shambles. I’ve interviewed a few
people in jail or after they were released. Also tried whenever possible
to talk to retired policemen and news reporters who were present at
certain incidents, to hear their eyewitness accounts. In Shikoku they
took me back to the scene of the crime and reminisced for me. Then we
all went to an onsen and got crocked. It was great.
You also have extensively researched eighteenth and nineteenth century
crime and punishment. Do you see any connection with present day crimes
or crime networks?
Tokyo’s modern police has its roots in troops of samurai from Kagoshima
and Kochi. Even today, this tradition is ongoing, to some degree, so
the evolutionary threads are still visible. The police at one time had
a reputation for being very diligent. I remember being taken by a cop
to the small museum in MPD headquarters and being shown the blood-stained
uniforms of civilian policemen who guarded the cabinet members, who
were killed in the line of duty when they shot it out with the rebelling
army troops during the Feb. 26 coup d’etat incident in 1936. There is
also a special corner in Aoyama Cemetery for police heroes. There are
still some dedicated cops who believe in what they’re doing, and I find
it very moving.
What are your thoughts on the Japanese death penalty system? Why
do you think the Japanese have persisted in keeping this system? Do
you feel that it has worked as a crime deterrent in Japan?
The courts often say they impose death sentences out of consideration
of the “feelings” of the victims. To be honest, I think that’s bull.
Laws should be imposed, and sentences carried out, to protect society,
not consider feelings. Back in 1964 a writer named Stephen Becker published
a brilliant novel, A Convenant with Death, about a judge in New
Mexico who agonizes over enforcement of the death penalty. It’s out
of print, but can be purchased used via Amazon. A wonderful read.
Japanese no longer revel in the death penalty. The number has declined
and some prime ministers serve out their entire tenure without a single
execution taking place. I think it’s been quite some time since the
annual number of hangings rose to two digits. Like the death penalty
in the U.S., though, it’s pretty arbitrary. For example, although there
have been quite a few nasty murderesses, no woman has been executed
since 1965 or so. Killers may have a chance of avoiding the gallows
if they confess, weep and show contrition. In the States, in contrast,
they are “born again.”
At least Japanese do not announce a scheduled execution in advance—heck,
they don’t even publicize it after the fact—so they manage to avoid
the kind of hysterical dramas by the bleeding hearts, milked by the
media for all it’s worth, that repeats itself in the U.S. each time
an execution takes place. The ordeal of watching the hysterics in the
U.S. is almost as bad as being forced to watch a public hanging or decapitation.
That having been said, the conditions on prisons’ death rows in Japan
are terrible. And despite the law that says a prisoner must understand
why he is receiving capital punishment, so many years pass during the
process of sentencing, appeals and execution, it’s pretty obvious that
many of the condemned are not of sound mind at the time they go to the
I’m of mixed feelings about the death penalty. I don’t think it’s much
of a deterrent, and the fact is, some criminals are pathologically incorrigible.
In A Clockwork Orange, a biting satire, Anthony Burgess wrote about
using mind control techniques on criminals to make them meeker, and
how it backfired badly.
What are your thoughts on modern Japanese law enforcement? Are they
battling crime or drinking tea in koban boxes? In the event of a large
scale catastrophe—another Aum or worse yet a terrorist attack—could
they be able to cope?
Too many Japanese civil servants provide a minimalist effort. But
a koban—which, incidentally, is the invention of a Prussian advisor
during the Meiji period—is not there for the purpose of battling crime.
It’s official name is a sub-station, and the police posted therein are
not forensic investigators. Their job is to keep an eye on the neighborhood.
As for battling terrorists, let’s hope the bad guys realize that wreaking
havoc in Japan is unlikely to accomplish much more than bring the U.S.
military down on their heads.
There’s sometimes a relationship between the economy and crime.
For example, in the UK, some argue that violent crimes (i.e. assault,
murder, rape) are more prevalent in times of affluence, and property
crimes (theft, shoplifting, snatch and grab) are more prevalent in economic
downturns. Do you see any effects of the economic downturn on the type
of crimes committed in Japan?
Sure, and if you look back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, you’ll
see there was a much higher crime rate here than there is now. One of
the more interesting statistics I’ve noted lately is that homicides,
which used to be concentrated on the 18 to 25 age group of males—when
their testosterone is at its peak—is becoming distributed relatively
flatly between the 20s and 60s!
Sure there are more bicycle thefts, etc., but I would point out sometimes
it’s good to take a look at what kinds of crimes have not increased.
Thank god, guns are kept off the streets—so there were just 28 murders
by firearms in 2002 if memory serves me right. With the exception of
amphetamines, which is a Japanese invention, by the way, they have a
fairly good handle on drugs, although they could do better. Cocaine
and heroin are confiscated occasionally, but there’s no “French Connection”
stuff going down.
What are you working on now? What is your latest project?
I want to finish a book about the study of kanji (Chinese ideographs)
that keeps getting put on the back burner. I have two proposals out
to publishers for a book on the history of sadomasochism in Japan. I
also have the outline for a science fiction novel in the back of my
head. But of course all these take the back burner to the day-to-day
concerns of earning my livelihood.
What are your vices?
I’m not lazy, but I’m easily distracted. I enjoy surfing the web when
I should be working. I like to eat too much. I don’t get enough exercise.
But on the other hand, I’m pretty focused on what I do. I haven’t paid
money to watch a cinema for more than 10 years. I seldom rent videos
any more—it’s getting harder and harder to watch movies. I don’t go
to concerts or museums or stage dramas. I’m pretty focused on my writing
work and the research that goes into it. I worry sometimes that limits
me, but shikata ga nai [it can’t be helped].
What do you think are the best books on Japanese society? What do
you think are the worst? Any recommendations on the best Japanese mysteries?
I look back at all those books about “Japan the emerging superstate,”
like Ezra Vogel’s, and don’t know whether to laugh or cry. With no disrespect
intended toward my colleagues, I’ve almost stopped reading books in
English about Japan. Some things are changing so fast, I find they are
often out of date by the time they appear in English, or for that matter,
even in Japanese. Being a translator of magazine stories, many of the
articles I see are expanded into books, and then three or more years
later I see the same things being quoted in some English book. So you
can see we are dealing with a time lag.
That having been said, I’ve enjoyed reading Karel van Wolfren and Ivan
Morris, whose books are more panoramic in scope. Alex Kerr is an excellent
writer, but I don’t see his work having a strong impact.
As far as Japanese mystery novels are concerned, if you are talking
about those in English translation, John Apostolou, an American authority
on the Japanese mystery genre, once made the observation that the sum
total of Japanese mystery titles translated into English is roughly
equivalent to a single month’s output by Japanese mystery authors.
As for the best Japanese mystery I've read, that's a tough call. Actually
I find most of the books slow going. Those who want to develop a taste
for the genre might want to start by reading some of the very appealing
mystery short stories, move their way up to novelettes, and then try
a full-length book. I enjoyed Masako Togawa's books, and also the two
Edo-period mysteries by Shotaro Ikenami that my good friend Gavin Frew
translated into English. Gavin, by the way, is something of an unsung
hero in that he is, I believe, the most prolific translator of Japanese
mysteries into English.
What are you reading right now? What do you like to read?
From last summer, I got back to writing reviews of mystery, adventure
and spy fiction set in Asia, this time for The Japan Times. Over
the past year, I’ve enjoyed historical mysteries by Laura Joh Rowland,
Ingrid Parker and Dale Furutani. I like contemporary authors too—Guy
Peter Tasker and Sujata Massey. I try to read fiction set in the
Far East, like the hard boiled “Vinny Calvino” series by Christopher
G. Moore set in Bangkok. I read Qiu Xiaolong, Eliot Pattison and Lisa
I am also a big fan of U.S. mystery writers Michael Connelley, Thomas
Perry, whose character is Jane Whitefield, an American Indian woman;
and Stephen Hunter, who writes about a former U.S. Marine sniper named
“Bob the Nailer.”
I really enjoyed Nelson DeMille’s Up Country, about a Vietnam
vet who returns to visit Vietnam 30 years after the war. DeMille himself
served in a combat unit in Vietnam, and this novel combines his personal
war reminiscences with romance, a murder and a little bit of Yellow
Peril thrown in.
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