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Murder Mystery In Tsukuba

Author:Tim Boyle, Issue: June 1999, Topic: Events

The unsolved murder of Tomomi Kawamata, a 19 year-old freshman at Tsukuba University, along with the apparent involvement of a foreigner, has been a hot topic of discussion for the last month. Approximately 100 local police and detectives have been working on the case since her body was found on May 3rd, and with all of the publicity surrounding the case, the rumor mill has been working overtime. As this has become an important issue in the foreign community, the Alien Times is devoting the June issue to the various issues surrounding this tragic event, along with related articles on such practices as random checks of foreigners and new legislation to improve the practices of the police.

As a good bit of misinformation and partial information has been circulating around Tsukuba, the first order of business is to give a brief overview of what happened and who was involved. The following account was gleaned from various articles in the Japanese press: Tomomi Kawamata was one of 6 women out of a total of 490 students admitted to the basic engineering program at Tsukuba University. She was from Fujisawa, Kanagawa and was the only daughter of a professional guitarist. People who knew her said she was a serious, quiet student who did not wear flashy clothes or use much makeup. Her high school classmates described her as being a person who simply wasnít the type to go out with strangers at a whim, and so this aspect of her personality only adds to the mystery of what happened. She was athletic and participated in school sports as a distance runner. It was her dream to enter Tsukuba University, with its wide-open spaces. That dream, however, turned into a nightmare as her planned 4 years of campus life ended up being only 4 days.

Tomomi arrived on campus on April 6 to live in the Ichinoya Dormitory. Students come from a variety of places to live and study together, and so their first days at the university are usually taken up with becoming familiar with new surroundings and classmates. In this respect, things seemed to be going normally until the day she disappeared, April 10. An acquaintance said that she had spoken with Tomomi at about 5:25 pm on the phone. She had invited her to a konpa that evening (a word derived from the English word companion and meaning a gathering to mix with other students and get to know them). Tomomi declined the invitation saying she had been invited to dinner by a man who said he was Italian and who spoken in a combination of broken English and Japanese.

Other witnesses said they had seen her walking with a tall foreigner that afternoon, just before she disappeared. He was described as being in his late twenties, about 190 cm. tall, slender, with fairly short, dark brown hair. On the day of her disappearance, he was wearing a long-sleeved gray shirt with a horizontal, light blue stripe. Several witnesses also recalled having seen her with him several times in the preceding days after her arrival. In fact, several other girls reported having been approached by a man of similar description, and so police are operating under the assumption that the same person was involved in each instance.

A missing-person report was formally filed by her parents four days after her disappearance, but until her body was discovered on May 3rd, no one expected that she had been murdered. The partly decomposed body was discovered by accident in a thickly wooded area about 1 km north of Shuei High School. She was clad only in underwear and the marks around her neck indicated that she had been strangled. It appears that she was murdered somewhere else and then her body was simply dumped there. As it was close to a narrow road, one local resident mentioned that he recalled driving by one night shortly after her disappearance and smelling the strong odor of rotting flesh, but he merely assumed that it was a dead animal in the bushes.

With the discovery of the body and the revelation that she had been seen with this mysterious foreigner shortly before her disappearance, the police made a concerted effort to track down the suspect. There is no direct evidence that this person had anything to do with the murder, but since he has not made himself known and no one seems to have any idea who he could be, the suspicion that this man did commit the murder and has fled the area has grown stronger.

At this writing, the investigation has been continuing for more than a month, but without any significant progress. Within the first week, the police had interviewed 1450 people, including 220 foreign residents. Needless to say, the first people to be investigated were those from Italy, but no one could be found in Tsukuba or elsewhere in Ibaraki that matched the known characteristics of the suspect.

Police began to suspect that the suspect might be of some other nationality, and so the probe was expanded. Already, approximately 680 foreigners have been interviewed by police concerning what they might know about the case. One foreigner who fairly closely matched the description and who for personal reasons just happened to be dropping out of his program early came under particular scrutiny, but numerous people testified to his presence at another function at the time of the disappearance, and so it became clear that he was not the one. In a similar fashion, the police investigation has continued to produce few if any solid leads, and unless some breakthrough occurs, hopes are fading for a quick solution.

Concerning the difficulty of getting information from the international community, police chief Masao Aizawa was quoted as saying, Those from the same country tend to have strong bonds with their fellow countrymen, and it is difficult to get them to share information about such people. On the other hand, they tend to have few ties with people of other nationalities and simply donít have any information to share.

It would be interesting to see how many Alien Times readers agree with such a statement. I observe quite a bit of camaraderie across national lines in Tsukuba with little country cliquishness, but then my experience is not necessarily typical.

As for some of the rumors I have heard, the one that seems to be most prevalent is that the police already have the suspect in custody but are continuing the investigation merely as a ploy to get more information on as many foreigners as they can. Likewise, another unsolved murder in Tsukuba of a Filipino woman on March 23, 1998 has been mentioned as a motive for the questionings that are perceived to be unrelated to the present case. One common complaint aired by those who have been questioned is that the police seem to want to know much more about them personally than any information they might have that is relevant to the case. Likewise, reports that the police frequently asked foreigners how to get in contact with other foreigners led to speculations that the police werenít allowed to get that information from the city through the Alien Registration data.

As part of the preparation for this article, I talked with one of the detectives at the police station. All aspects of the above paragraph were specifically denied. The police have plenty of leeway to get information directly from other government agencies, and so perhaps the questions pertaining to how to locate others were only a questioning technique used to confirm truthfulness or something like that. (The detective, of course, did not elaborate on that point.)

Police denial of the rumor that they really already had the suspect in custody does not, of course, constitute proof that it is also a false rumor. If it were true, it is rather unlikely they would admit it. However, it is also quite likely, in my opinion, that the rumor is false. It is unfortunate that many in the foreign community look with suspicion on the local police. For some, experiences in their homelands have preconditioned them to distrust any police. For others, stories of corruption and incompetence in the Japanese police force (some of which may very well be true) have colored their perception as well. Language and cultural barriers no doubt also contribute to the problem.

Public relations are an important part of police work, for it is much more difficult for them to police a society that views them with suspicion than one that actively cooperates with their work. While it may be true that the Japanese police department has a lot of room for improvement (see article on new rules for police conduct), as long as you are in Japan for legitimate reasons and you are not involved in illegal activity, you should have nothing to worry about. Thus, it behooves us in the foreign community to be a responsible partner in the larger society and cooperate with police investigations as much as possible. If you have any information that may be helpful, please do pass it along. If you are afraid of getting yourself in trouble for some other reason, you can pass the tip along anonymously, either directly to the police at number 110, or you can send it to the Alien Times and we will pass it on.

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