On writing

The real life story behind Blue Light Yokohama: Part 2

In the second of three pieces, author Nicolás Obregón talks about the Japanese crime case that inspired his novel Blue Light Yokohama.
 

The Miyazawa family’s house was a fair size, especially by Japanese standards. It stood in a municipal park in Setagaya, a largely residential ward clinging to the western limits of Tokyo. Soshigaya Park has quaint walking trails, sports pitches, a playground for children, and on its fringes, a picturesque little canal with crooked old trees hanging over its banks. In 1990, there were 200 houses in this park. A decade later, following park expansion, there were four. 

Today, there is only one.

In the summer, its lawns are not mown. In the autumn, leaves are not swept away. At night, its lights do not come on. And if you walked past it today, you’d be likely to miss it. You’re looking for a side path blocked off with little cones. The house itself is boarded up now, fenced off, three storeys of tarpaulin shielding it from public view. A policeman stands guard outside, hands on his hips, because this is no longer a house. It is a shell, a mausoleum.
 

The Miyazawa family

Take a second to look at the Miyazawa family again. Do they not look plain? So ordinary. What you might find in an encyclopaedia if you looked up the term ‘nice people.’

In the photograph, time frozen as it is, we see the father, Mikio. He’s 44, slim, bearded, bespectacled. He works for Interbrand — corporate identity development. At school, he loved theatre and puppetoon animation. He wears an ocean blue polo shirt and moccasins, allowing two fingers to touch the shoulder of his son sitting below him. It’s the only trace of visible affection. Yasuko, 41, although almost smiling, looks more rigid. She wears a beige blouse, her hair neatly plaited, hands in her lap. She’s a teacher and she looks like one, somehow. A nice teacher but one that stands for no malarkey. Niina, 8, is cute, rosy-faced and wearing Velcro trainers. She’s in the second grade, attending piano and ballet classes. She mimics her mother’s pose, in my mind, keen to please. Her little brother, Rei, is 6 years old. His legs are apart and he fiddles with his fingers, looking to camera open-mouthed. Because of his pose, I imagine him as a touch more rebellious than his sister. He wears sailing shoes, just like dad. Nobody is quite smiling. Nobody is giving away much.


So what happened?

On the night of the 30th of December, 2000, a person, or persons unknown, broke into their house and murdered them all. That person then spent up to twelve hours in the house, eating their ice cream and browsing their internet, before leaving in broad daylight.

A brutal home invasion such as this would be a rare thing in most places, let alone in Japan. To give you an idea, in 2015, reported crime in Japan fell to a post-war low. Homicides didn’t even break 1000. This despite a population of almost 130 million. (For context, there were over 100 murders in Honduras in the first ten days of the same year). I’m not saying that bad things don’t happen in Japan. Of course they do. But when you compare their numbers, mutatis mutandis, to much of the rest of the world, murderous home invasions in Japan just don’t happen.


And yet…

Depending which account you read, it seems as though Mikio died first. This seems like a logical place for a killer to start if one considers the father the main threat. He was stabbed to death, probably in the hallway. Next came Yasuko and Niina, who had attempted to hide. They too were stabbed to death. Finally, the killer came for little Rei, still in his bed. One can only hope he was asleep when it happened. But here the killer broke form. He smothered the boy to death. This detail must have been significant for the police. There seemed to be no blood lust in this final act, no orgasm of violence. Perhaps the killer didn’t want to be looked at? Or perhaps he felt it was unnecessary to use the knife.

Either way, The Tokyo Metropolitan Police, the largest police force in the world, responded as you would expect. They ended up putting near a quarter of a million officers on the case — an astonishing figure. Imagine the entire population of Plano, Texas, all of them police officers, all of them working around the clock to find one man. A single man.

And it wasn’t as if the killer was shy about leaving behind evidence. The TMPD bagged over 12,000 pieces of it. First and foremost — the murder weapon — a long sashimi knife which police discovered he bought that morning for around £30. It doesn’t take Perry Mason to work out this shows pre-meditation. The killer also left behind his blood at the scene, having fought with Mikio. Significant amounts of blood, too. The police found that after the murders, he tried to patch himself up. When he ran out of supplies, he moved on to using the mother’s sanitary pads, (which he left in the bathtub).

Blood analysis revealed an intriguingly rare profile. The killer was half east Asian — Japanese, Chinese or Korean — and half Mediterranean — Spanish, Portuguese, Italian. The strange details didn’t stop there. He left behind his clothes, which the police described as ‘young,’ including footprints for size 9 Slazenger sneakers, large for Japanese standards. There was a Uniqlo puffer jacket, gloves, a bucket hat. On his clothes, there were traces of zelkova leaves and bird droppings. In his bum bag, there were sand grains from the Mojave desert, the other side of the planet. On his handkerchief, there were traces of his aftershave — Drakkar Noir — winner of the 1985 FiFi Award for most successful men’s fragrance. (Incidentally, the handkerchief was ironed, which struck me as weird. Is this a pernickety person? A clean freak? Or just someone tidy?)

 


When the killer was done with the house, he took an old sweater and walked outside. Sixteen years on and he’s still out there. He may as well have walked off the edge of the earth.
 

Though perhaps not. At some point, the killer used the toilet without bothering to flush. His faeces revealed him to be likely a vegetarian. He had, at least, eaten sesame seeds and string beans the day before. He used the family computer twice, once at around 1am, and again at the next day at 10am. He ate four ice cream cups as he browsed the family PC and looked up theatre groups in Tokyo for that day (the 31st of December 2000). There was something so off about it all. So Goldilocks.

When the killer was done with the house, he took an old sweater and walked outside. Sixteen years on and he’s still out there. He may as well have walked off the edge of the earth.

But nobody just vanishes. So where did he go? As you can imagine, that quarter million cops I mentioned looked at this case from every angle. It’s safe to assume they looked at the mother, they looked at the father. They wondered about money owed to the wrong people. Affairs. Some secret pathological hatred of the family from someone who knew them. They even took away the family’s nenganjo (new year greeting cards) for clues. They did their victimology as you would expect. But they never found the killer. Nor did they, or anyone else for that matter, come up even with a viable theory to my mind. There have been several — robbery gone wrong etc. But none of them ever really stand up to the pure oddness of the act itself.

Today, from that quarter million cops, around 40 officers remain attached to the case full-time. I picture them still bouncing around theories. Still waiting by the phone. Still hand out flyers at the train station. What’s certain is that they visit the house every year on the anniversary of the murder, bowing and paying their respects to the family. Young men will have become veteran cops. Some will have retired. For that 40, I wonder if they feel stuck, frozen in the mystery of such an aberration. Do they think about the Miyazawas often? When they’re watching TV at home with their families, for example. Or do they leave it at the desk when they leave at night?

And what of the killer? He may even be dead now. Nobody can know. My feeling? He simply moved on and reinvented himself. If he’s alive, he’s probably far away. Maybe he has a family of his own somewhere. Outside, he’ll probably be friendly to his neighbours, as the cliché demands. Maybe quiet, maybe jovial. Normal in superfice. But inside, he’ll be something else. He’ll be an individual. A very particular man. A someone. Someone who travels. Someone who most likely doesn’t eat meat. Someone who likes masculine-smelling French aftershave. Someone maybe cognisant of more than one culture, with more than one passport. For the family of the Miyazawas, for the policemen who investigated the case and investigate it still, even for people like me and the many who have been touched by this tragedy, he will be something else. He will be a faceless silhouette, a concept, a malignant spirit from a ghost story — a thing capable of massacre. Someone who looks like this:

 

 

Someone who, on the morning of the 30th of December, sixteen years ago, for whatever reason, bought a knife. Someone who stalked through the darkness of Soshigaya Park, his Slazengers crunching over the brittle, blanched grass, towards a home. Someone who, as his breath puffed out white on the air, looked up at the bathroom window with the intention of carving an entire family out of existence.


Someone.


Read Part Three

Find out more about the author

Blue Light Yokohama

Nicolás Obregón

Setagaya ward, Tokyo
Inspector Kosuke Iwata, newly transferred to Tokyo's homicide department, is assigned a new partner and a secondhand case.

Blunt, hard as nails and shunned by her colleagues, Assistant Inspector Noriko Sakai is a partner Iwata decides it would be unwise to cross.

A case that's complicated - a family of four murdered in their own home by a killer who then ate ice cream, surfed the web and painted a hideous black sun on the bedroom ceiling before he left in broad daylight. A case that so haunted the original investigator that he threw himself off the city's famous Rainbow Bridge.

Carrying his own secret torment, Iwata is no stranger to pain. He senses the trauma behind the killer's brutal actions. Yet his progress is thwarted in the unlikeliest of places.

Fearing corruption among his fellow officers, tracking a killer he's sure is only just beginning and trying to put his own shattered life back together, Iwata knows time is running out before he's taken off the case or there are more killings . . .

Blue Light Yokohama is crime fiction at its very best - gripping, haunting, atmospheric and utterly captivating.

Praise for Blue Light Yokahama

'Obregón is a bright, sophisticated new voice in crime fiction: his writing sings at you, reverberates, makes you consider more than just the urgent clamour of his novel's well-hewn murder plot. In Inspector Iwata, he has created a quiet, troubled hero whom readers will be sure to follow from one disturbing, atmospheric story to the next' Benjamin Wood, author of The Ecliptic

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