Photo/Illutration A makeshift flower stand set up under a bridge to commemorate a homeless man found dead in Gifu in May (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

GIFU--When 81-year-old Tetsuya Watanabe, a homeless man, died here in March after being attacked by multiple assailants, not many people paid attention.

That changed on April 23 when police arrested five 19-year-old men who lived in Gifu Prefecture, charging three with murder and two others with injury resulting in death.

Police and the news media did not release the suspects’ names and other information to the public due to the Juvenile Law, which prohibits the publication of names of juveniles charged with a crime.

Internet denizens reacted with outrage, wanting the accused identified. 

Soon after news of the arrests broke, false rumors and defamatory comments started popping up on social media.

Many expressed the belief that the police and the media should “release the suspects’ names as well as the names of the universities they attend.”

The speculation game and the ruining of the reputations of innocent students had just begun.

Some news outlets reported that the two men arrested on the injury resulting in death charges are students at Asahi University in Mizuho in the prefecture and belonged to the college baseball team. University officials confirmed the news after some media reported on the backgrounds of the suspects.

That further fueled the rumor-mongers on the internet. 

“Seems like we are close to identifying them. Leak it to us if you know something!” one posted.

“Looks like we found their motives and home addresses,” another posted.

Members of the baseball team who had nothing to do with the incident were treated as suspects on the internet, with their names and photos posted.

Many men who did not attend the university but were involved in baseball also became the victim of false rumors, as their names and photos were plastered all over the internet.

A children’s baseball team that one such man belonged to in the past was forced to issue a statement on social media denying any involvement in the murder case.

“He took no part in the incident,” the statement said. “We have talked with police about the false rumors circulating with the intent to file a lawsuit.”

A person related to the children's team said, “It doesn’t make any sense that he and his family are under threat of harm. We issued the statement because we wanted to protect him.”

Charges against the two collegiate men who were arrested on the injury resulting in death charge were later dropped. Police did not find they were involved in any conspiracy to commit assault.

But during a period of one month or so, the university received about 750 phone calls and emails of inquiries and protest. Many demanded that the university disclose the students’ names.

The collateral damage did not stop there.

Asahi University students on job searches have been forced to deal with unjust discrimination.

Several days after the arrest was reported in the news media, three senior students who were members of the baseball team were told by companies that they had rescinded their informal job offers. 

The companies did not tell them why, according to sources related to the university.

Female students in the nursing science department were asked to state “what do you think of the incident” at a job interview.

Other students were repeatedly asked by company recruiters by phone, “Are you sure you don't have anything to do with the case?”

Companies have also contacted the university, asking to verify a particular student’s noninvolvement with the case.

“Is this student really OK?” the caller typically asked.

University officials have told students to consult with them about any concerns. In the meantime, they have visited companies to explain the situation to protect innocent students from being unfairly punished.

After the incident, the university has put the baseball team on infinite suspension. The head coach resigned to take responsibility.

The university has also set up an internal investigative committee of experts. The committee has looked into the report that Watanabe had been attacked and stoned even prior to fatal incident and concluded that “no student was involved in the past stoning acts, either.”