Daigaku Z: History Repeating

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

The interesting thing about being an old geezer (or biddy, in my case) going back to school to study Japan and its culture is that, inevitably, some of the stuff that I’m learning about now is stuff that I watched unfold in real-time. I don’t like to talk too much about what I used to do in my spare time before I wound up volunteering with youth and anime organizations, because a lot of it isn’t the sort of thing one really talks about with pride. But I’ll just state it outright, and hope that most of the readers will understand: I used to lurk on 4chan, specifically in 2004-06. I like to think I’ve learned the right lessons from such activity, but I also like to think that I can still beat The Goonies II in under an hour, when I clearly can’t.

Anyway, 2004. I can’t tell you how I first found my way to that site, because I honestly don’t remember. I think it was while I was searching for more Azumanga Daioh stuff. Honest. But in 2004, a particular phenomenon swept through both Moot’s domain and its progenitor, 2ch, thanks in no small part to the rather widespread notoriety of the event and the endless amount of speculation that it prompted. Because in 2004, Satomi Mitarai was murdered by a fellow fifth-grader.

What would eventually be known as the Sasebo killing, after the location in Nagasaki Prefecture where it took place, was also what would later be identified as emblematic of the culture of bullying in Japanese schools. Ijime, the word for the bullying, can be written with one of two different kanji: one means “scolding” while the other means “tyrannize” (though it is often simply written in hiragana). Mitarai had reportedly been tormenting another girl in the school with remarks about her weight and, according to the reports of the time, calling her a “goody-goody”. Whatever the impetus, something caused the girl to snap, and she used a boxcutter to brutally slash Mitarai’s throat on June 1st.

The case was seized upon by 2ch users after, due to strict Japanese laws preventing identification of minors accused of crimes, the only photo of the murderer featured her in a brown sweatshirt labeled “NEVADA”, and flashing the traditional “peace-sign” salute. In what can most charitably be considered a perverse sort of sympathy for the girl, she became an instant sensation among the more artistically-minded users of the service, spawning thousands of stylized portraits of the girl and her weapon of choice. Around this time, anthropomorphized representations of operating systems, called “OS-tans” after a cutesy malapropism for the diminutive suffix “-chan”, were also in the popular imagination, and thus “Nevada-tan” was born. It wouldn’t be long before the meme leapt the Pacific, and 4chan users began reposting and in some cases creating the images themselves for the English-speaking audience.

For my part, I admit to a certain amount of curiosity as the deluge of images featuring a deranged hoodie-wearing girl wielding a boxcutter popped across the screen in the end of 2004, and I looked into the case a little at the time. The more I read, the more my heart broke for both the murderer and for Mitarai. At the same time, though, there was still a tiny little part of me that wanted to comfort “Nevada”, that wanted to congratulate her, and tell her that she couldn’t be hurt by her classmates any more. The aftereffects of my own bullying– what I endured and what I unthinkingly perpetrated on others– were affecting my view of the situation. It took a while for me to stop crying after I realized that.

It wasn’t the first time that social ostracism and childhood cruelty caused a student to go off the deep end, and it certainly wasn’t a phenomenon restricted to the heavily regimented and order-obsessed Japanese school system. The previous years had brought schoolyard violence to the forefront of the world’s attention, between incidents such as the “Shonen A” murders in Kobe in 1997, Dedrick Owens’ murder of a classmate in Flint, Michigan in 2000, and most horrifically, the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Japanese and American analysts pored over the data for months, but no conclusive action was taken, and very little has been taken since.

Very little positive action, anyway. Most scholars seem to agree that school life in Japan has far more pressure than is strictly necessary, but none can see a way to ease the strain without risking a drop in grades. And as bad as some of it can get, some of it is still self-inflicted: an aphorism among students preparing for college entrance exams states “Four [hours of sleep] pass, five fail”. As much as people have shone the light on bullying and overpressure, it still continues; the shadows are merely darker.

When the topic of education in Japan came up in class this week, the discussion turned towards Shonen A and Nevada-tan. I felt the blood drain away from my face as images I’d seen ten years prior were projected onto the screen above the professor, and heard the nervous chuckles of my classmates who thought it was amusing that a murderer would be so idolized. The professor was respectful in her tone, and did admit that there was a certain sense of culture clash involved in it, but I still felt mortified. My thoughts flashed back to those few weeks in the end of 2004 when I’d sat at my computer and flicked through the artwork and text posts. Did I have any right to laugh when, even indirectly, I’d participated in canonization of the girl?

In researching this topic, and to gain a greater understanding of what exactly is going on, I came across news of another schoolgirl murder in Nagasaki. This past July, Matsuo Aiwa was murdered by a classmate in her junior-high school, over… absolutely nothing. The murderer, who used a metal pipe to bludgeon Matsuo to death, reportedly had no quarrel with her victim, according to the Japan Times. She was simply a psychopath.

Ten years between those two murders. Ten years separate Nevada-tan and the unnamed killer of Matsuo Aiwa. In those ten years, more bloodshed and no changes. I wonder, in ten years, will we see another incident like this? I pray that we won’t, but there is still that cynical part of me that says I shouldn’t plan on any trips to Nagasaki in 2024.

Prove me wrong. I dare you. Do everything in your power to stop bullying. Do everything in your power to get help for those people who most desperately need it. Prove me wrong. And I’ll see you in Sasebo.