Photo/IllutrationYukio Ito (Photo by Shinichi Iizuka)

As calls for tougher punishment for juvenile criminals have grown in recent years, the Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice has been discussing a possible lowering of the Juvenile Law’s threshold age from 20 to 18.

Under Japanese law, a person is legally an adult from the age of 20. Crimes committed by minors are tried differently from those by adults at family courts, apart from serious or deadly offenses, and rehabilitation is generally prioritized over custodial sentences in juvenile prisons.

The Asahi Shimbun interviewed Yukio Ito, 62, a family court probation officer who has dealt with more than 3,000 children in his 37 years of experience, on how the nature of crime by troubled juveniles is changing with society.

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Question: Do you see any disturbing characteristics in today’s minors?

Ito: I feel their isolation is worse than before. Their situation is just like in (TV anime series) ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion,' in which the boy protagonist is suddenly forced to take up the pilot’s seat of a giant robot-like weapon to fight an enemy creature.

I assume today’s children must be feeling the same--being pushed into a cockpit alone to fight, manipulated by something they don’t really understand.

In past times, lonely children could find a place in ‘bad-boy’ or ‘bad-girl’ culture, but now such communities are also disappearing. Around 1980, when I became a probation officer, the time was characterized by bad boys and girls forming large-scale delinquent collectives. It was not rare to see a group of 200 young biker gangsters hitting the road on their customized motorbikes. Such groups operated brotherly hierarchical systems. Now, gangs of more than five motorbike riders are rare. Cases of collective crimes are also on the decline.

Q: Are the types of offenses committed by children changing?

A: Overall, theft or appropriation, such as shoplifting and stealing bicycles, takes up 50 percent of juvenile crime, while traffic accidents and infringements account for 30 percent, and violent incidents such as fighting and injuring a person remains at 10 percent. Roughly, the ratios have not changed much since old times.

However, I have noticed obscene cases such as groping and secret photography are increasing. I imagine it is because of the popularization of smartphones and the expansion of Internet communities.

Juvenile delinquents’ bad behavior manifests as theft or driving without a license, for example, when things don't go as well as they wished or they are frustrated in their lives. They know it is wrong, but they cannot control their urges. Such immaturity also has not changed from old times.

Families with two working parents have become more common, and family members are isolated from each other, too. Children often do not even have a sense of belonging at their schools.

Previously, many juvenile offenders tended to be anti-social and wanted to show off their bad behavior, but these days, I see more children who are more non-social and who want to avoid communicating with others, and more cases of juvenile offenders who refuse to go to school, withdraw in their rooms, or are suicidal.

I often hear children in custody saying they have not eaten since the day before yesterday. It means they are in a situation where they live night and day in reverse, they do not see their parents, and their fridges are empty. It is not unusual to see children who have not had meals with adults since they were in the senior years of elementary school (generally between age 10 and 12).

Q: So, the environment surrounding children is changing.

A: Many children who used to be summoned to family courts were aggressive. They often acted defiantly while being interviewed in their parents’ presence, but their attitudes would suddenly change when their parents left the interview room.

Now, I see much less defiant children, and their attitudes don’t change much with or without their parents’ presence.

I imagine there is little time when they communicate face-to-face, as children shut themselves in their rooms playing video games or fiddling with smartphones.

When I speak with the children, quite a few say, ‘No adult has ever listened to me talk for this long.’ If adults can listen to children at earlier stages, they will start to change.

Society should pay more attention to what child delinquents fall into and what kinds of thoughts they develop and act on. I believe we, as adults, are neglecting children too much.

At the same time, it has become increasingly hard for children who end up in juvenile training schools to gain footholds to return to school or find employment.

After dropping out of high school, they can join a support school to gain a high school graduate’s certificate, but the fees are expensive. If they don’t have a reasonable financial background, it is hard to catch up on educational opportunities.

There used to be apprenticeships offered by masters of shuttering carpenters or painters, but now, such masters are also on non-permanent contracts, and they cannot afford to take in a juvenile apprentice.

Q: There is a view that juvenile crimes are becoming more vicious.

A: The number of cases of juvenile delinquency first peaked around 1965, when there was a total of more than 300 murder and attempted murder cases by minors yearly, over 10 times more than that of today.

In the second peak between 1983 and 1984, there were about 80 cases a year. Even after taking the drop of the child population into account, the number of vicious juvenile crimes has drastically dropped.

Sixty percent of today’s murders and attempted murders by juveniles are committed against their parents or relatives, and 15 percent are murders of newborns (often by teenage mothers).

The rest are largely committed in their circles of friends, and cases of murdering a complete stranger only occur between zero and three times a year. The figures show that Japanese children are extremely docile by world standards.

Even in cases that are considered atrocious incidents, you would see a different picture if you dealt with the young offenders firsthand.

In one case, a first-year high school student stabbed his mother more than 10 times to death. The attack was triggered when the mother said to him, ‘You are acting strangely lately,’ when she found out that he did not go to school as he was not doing so well academically at school.

His mother had high hopes for him so she meant a lot to the boy. He was arrested after wandering for two days, wanting but unable to take his own life.

He was sent to a juvenile training school for three and a half years. He studied hard there to gain a high school graduate's certificate, and he got into a university after leaving the reformatory. However, after becoming an adult, he took his own life as a way of ‘taking responsibility.’

Is it right to brand this incident as an ‘atrocious crime'?

Q: In the past 20 years, the justice system has become tougher and tougher on fatal crimes.

A: In the past, vicious crimes were considered the fault of the social system to an extent, but now, the idea that people are solely responsible for their own actions is rampant.

I heard that until around 1980, news coverage of juvenile crimes only lasted a day or two on newspapers or TV. Now, on TV shows and other platforms, reports continue relentlessly, creating the impression in society that there are more brutal cases today.

The trend started with 1997’s series of attacks and murders of elementary school students by a junior high school student (who beheaded one of the victims) in Kobe. However, historically speaking, there was a case in the 1960s in which a boy beheaded the victim who was a child, and before World War II, there was a case of an 11-year-old girl brutally killing a child. I believe the media is feeding on today’s incidents too sensationally.

Cases of juvenile crimes are neither increasing nor becoming more vicious, and the age of offenders is not lowering, but preconceptions are dictating the ideas surrounding them.

Feelings of average people, including myself, are often easily affected by groundless things. I believe it is important for people responsible in politics to control that agitation or explain things properly (based on facts), but it is not rare to see politicians making remarks based on factual errors.

It is no exaggeration to say that such groundless opinions have pushed the repeated amendment of the Juvenile Law to make it tougher.

Of course, I am not saying the law should have stayed unchanged. The law used to lack consideration and support to victim’s families, and it was also contested that spending only a year in juvenile reformatory, in principle, is not enough for a fatal crime.

Q: I heard the current discussion over lowering the threshold of the applicable age of the Juvenile Law was triggered by a speech by (former Defense Minister) Tomomi Inada, who was at the time the chair of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council.

A: That is correct. It started when an amendment of the law was raised in response to a case where a group of teenagers, supposedly led by an 18-year-old boy, killed a first-year male junior high school student in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 2015.

However, for serious juvenile crimes, there was already a rule to refer the cases back to prosecutors to try them as adults, if the offenders are 16 or older.

So, they came to the wrong door to start the discussion on lowering the age threshold in response to the Kawasaki incident.

It was truly a tragic incident, but I don’t think the ringleader was a cold-blooded villain. He was a friend of the victim who used to regularly play TV games together, and he occasionally treated the victim to bowls of ramen or other things.

The leader was a victim of domestic violence since he was small, was academically not doing well at school, and never managed to learn skills and ways to solve life problems.

Prior to the incident, a local bad-boy group intruded on the ringleader’s house as they found out that he had hit the victim when he was drunk. I assume this incident scared him, and he resented the victim, believing it was all his fault, and committed the crime.

Q: At the Legislative Council, council members agree that the current Juvenile Law is generally functioning well, but are continuing the discussion as if lowering the threshold age is a pledge to keep.

A: The proposed change is said to coincide with the scheduled lowering of the age of legal adulthood. But, the proposition began when the right to vote was given to 18- and 19-year-olds in the amendment of the Public Offices Election Law in relation to a supplementary resolution of the national referendum law that was enacted to ratify possible constitutional amendment.

Diet lawmakers love the idea that 18 is the world standard for the age of adulthood, but after World War II, in many of states of America, and in many European, central and South American and African nations, 21-year-olds or 23-year-olds and above were legally adults.

The main reason for the higher adulthood age was to provide education opportunities and improve the environment for juveniles after going through two world wars.

The reason for lowering the age in later years in many cases was conscription. In the United States, the age of adulthood was lowered following the introduction of conscription during the Vietnam War.

Some nations did so in order to increase tax income as they were facing financial collapse.

We must learn from history that at the end of this adulthood age discussion there will be conscription and tax rises to come, among other issues.

The foundation of the juvenile justice system is laid in the principle of sending all juvenile crimes to family courts in the belief that people under 20 have the pliability to recover and that educative support for rehabilitation is effective.

Lowering the threshold age of the Juvenile Law fundamentally denies this basis. I am truly disappointed that the Supreme Court and family courts are keeping silent.