Date: June 22, 1989
Age: 14 years old
Satoshi was different.
In his early teens, he was a natural target for bullies. While his classmates shot up like bean sprouts, Satoshi had almost no physical growth. The weird scar on the side of his head, coupled with his often vacant stare, marked him as an outcast. Of course, most of the time he was simply busy concocting theories and stories, but his inquisitive nature made bullies resent him even more, and his distractedness provided them ample opportunities to attack.
His second year at junior high was fairly uneventful. Teachers kept a close eye on him since he underwent traumatic surgery during the tail end of his first year, which caused him to miss months of school. The teachers gossiped about the weird pilgrimage he went on with his mom, but were most interested in his intellect. It had been a long time since someone from Minamigawara Junior High school had aced any High School entrance exams. This strange little kid was their salvation. His intelligence could put the school on the academic map. Teachers were excited to sit among their peers with pride.
Unfortunately, the teachers couldn’t watch Satoshi all the time, and by his third and last year, the hyenas among his classmates caught the scent of opportunity and stalked him as if he was a wounded, straggling antelope. Like most bullying, Satoshi’s first altercation was a false flag attack.
Tsutomu, a large, unattractive kid, who likely could have qualified for a Sumo training camp on size alone, had just received a serious beating from his alcoholic father. His mother, normally the subject of those beatings, recently left to look after a sick relative for a few days, but hadn’t returned. The next day, Tsutomu showed up to school with a black eye and black cloud of emotional pain hanging over his head. No one questioned his injury.
Anyone could have set Tsutomu off, but unluckily for absent-minded Satoshi, it was him.
As he meandered down the school hallway, Satoshi mentally reviewed his most tantalizing story. The tale centered on a protagonist who goes on a spiritual journey to rescue a god. He should give the hero a cool facial scar.
“Sorry,” Satoshi muttered, barely aware of his physical surroundings. He continued brainstorming his story. The character also needed transportation. A horse? A car?
“What are you doing, Asshole?!”
A dragon, Satoshi decided. Perfect.
“Hey dipshit!” an angry voice hissed, weaving its way into Satoshi’s consciousness and shattering the comfort of his imaginary world.
Satoshi blinked away his story and focused on reality. A few of his classmates stared at him wide-eyed. What? Satoshi thought as a hand clamped down on his shoulder and spun him around.
“Answer me!” Tsutomu screamed, red-faced.
“S-sorry?” Satoshi stuttered, shocked by the larger student’s palpable rage.
“What do you mean, sorry?!” the bully spit back.
Before Satoshi could get another word in, Tsutomu violently shoved him into a wall. He grunted as his back collided with the solid barrier and then gasped when Tsutomu’s kick connected with his shins. Satoshi lost his balance and collapsed on the floor. Another blow pounded him in the chest. Satoshi tried to anchor himself, but was still disoriented from the escalation of events. Adrenaline directed Satoshi’s eyes to find the next point of attack, and he saw, too late, that a massive fist was coming at his face. Tsutomu’s punch connected with Satoshi’s nose, causing him to see stars. He was vaguely aware of students shrieking and thought he heard someone yell, “Stop!” Hurried footsteps rushed up to the scene, and he heard Tsutomu spouting resistance. A teacher knelt beside Satoshi, asking if he was okay, but the shock of the incident was starting to cause the corners of his vision to blacken. Satoshi managed a weak, “What?” before he gratefully succumbed to the safety of darkness.
Satoshi woke in the nurse’s office decorated in cuts and bruises, but surprisingly, had no permanent damage. He looked to his right and saw a side table with his glasses. One lens was cracked and the slim metal frame was twisted beyond repair. Satoshi held back tears. He did not want to ask his parents for new glasses. He knew they couldn’t afford them.
He looked up when the school nurse entered with a sympathetic smile. She tenderly cleaned him up, applying bandages and band aids to his broken skin. Then, she instructed him to lie down and rest while she reported the incident to the headmaster.
Fifteen minutes later, the headmaster poked his head around the door.
“Everything OK, young man?” he asked as he approached Satoshi’s bedside, “What happened?”
Satoshi realized he didn’t know what to say. It had all happened so unexpectedly. The fight felt like a fever dream. All he knew was that Tsutomu attacked him. So naively, Satoshi told the headmaster that Tsutomu assaulted him unprovoked, oblivious to retribution he would later receive.
The headmaster was shaken by the sight of Satoshi’s plastered face and bruises. The school nurse was right, Satoshi needed to take a few days off from school. If the PTA or school board heard about this level of violence at HIS school, he would receive hell for it. Afterall, he had been appointed as headmaster to rid the school of violence. He didn’t want to look bad. Indeed, the school was in a rough part of town, where parents worked hard jobs at factories, warehouses, and docks and lived near or below the poverty line. Naturally, stress, domestic violence and petty crime were major local problems. The headmaster was a part of the Kanagawa governor’s plan to raise the area out of the gutter and create a better society that could in turn pay higher taxes. This incident certainly wasn’t going to help. He had to make an example of Tsutomu so no other student dared to fight in his school.
In fact, this wasn’t the first time Tsutomu was brought to the headmaster’s office for misconduct. The previous issues were relatively minor, like skipping class or stealing other students’ lunches. However, one time the bully made a female teacher so anxious that she cried after class and later asked to be transferred to a safer school. But this time the little bugger had crossed a line–a line that could affect the headmaster’s paycheck and reputation.
He opened his closet and fished out a bamboo stick (“Jougi”) that he hadn’t used in years. Of course, school corporal punishment was illegal in Japan and had been since the end of WWII, but tough families knew that sometimes their kids needed tough love. He was simply carrying out his educational duties. With the bamboo stick in hand, the headmaster called out for a teacher and asked them to bring Tsutomu to him.
The headmaster whacked Tsutomo 20 times through his clothing, taking care to have the rod flex at just the right point to have maximum momentum, but not split the skin. The objective was pain to get the boy’s attention, and then humiliation to make a lasting impression. After the caning, the headmaster harangued Tsutomu for a half hour, telling him he was a loser and would wind up in juvenile prison before he turned 20 (the age of adulthood in Japan), marking him forever as a degenerate in this neighborhood.
With Tsutomu seated across from his desk, the headmaster placed the bamboo cane between them and informed the bully that he would tell his father about the fight.
Tsutomu knew that his father would be livid, which would certainly lead to another alcohol-fueled beating.
At the end of the “corrective administration” by the headmaster, Tsutomu was riven with fear and self-loathing. He considered his options. He could run away or commit suicide. Both seemed like better options than returning home. One of his cousins had hung himself a couple of years ago after continuous beatings from his uncle. So, kid-beating ran in Tsutomu’s family. He didn’t know any other life.
Tsutomu had just accepted his morbid fate as reality, when the headmaster uttered his parting words.
“And you will leave your classmate, Satoshi, alone.” the elder man instructed. “If I even see you look at young Nakamoto the wrong way, I will call the police and have them deal with you. I promise you, it will be much worse than anything you experienced today.”
Tsutomo hung his head and said, “Yes, I understand.”
Since Tsutomu’s head was bowed, the headmaster did not see the fire that his word’s ignited in the boy’s desperate eyes. The bully clung to hate like a drug he needed for survival. He hated Satoshi. That little prick was responsible for all this trouble. He was going to “fix” that piece of dog shit outside of school. No one would see.
As fate would have it, the headmaster never called Tsutomu’s dad. After the school bell rang that afternoon and the last of the students had exited the heavy steel school gates, there was a strong Shindo 5+ temblor that shook the school buildings. The earthquake lasted a good 30 seconds, and although there was no serious damage, the headmaster had duties. He made rounds, checked on his home room teachers, and filed the damage report to the school board. The older man’s thoughts were preoccupied by emerging cracks in one of the older 4-story building walls, and his worries about Tsutomu and Satoshi were replaced by his ensuing paperwork.
The best time and place for Tsutomu to waylay Satoshi was on his way home from school. Satoshi had to walk through older neighborhoods where the roads were narrow and the working inhabitants were still largely away or commuting. Tsutomu planned to ambush Satoshi halfway along the route near the housing projects when the sun started to set. The housing projects were relatively new, but piled high with hundreds of low-come families. In fact, the tall building was 13 stories high. The number four is unlucky in Japan, not 13, so the building elevators ran from 1 to 14, skipping 4, the number for death (“shi”).
The area was always packed with marauding kids, itinerants, and local “night workers” both men and women. No one would notice a bunch of boys pushing each other around. Tsutomu recruited some friends who hated teachers as much as he did. They viewed Satoshi as a teacher's favorite, so gaining their support was easy. They all looked forward to getting some revenge.
Satoshi returned to school a week after the beating. He was unaware that the headmaster physically and verbally abused Tsutomu and that he was now being targeted by a band of revenge-fueled classmates. However, it did not take him long to find out. By lunch time, half a dozen boys had spit and stuck gum on the pages of the advanced science textbook that his mother had purchased with overtime wages. They had already broken one of his backpack straps and scrawled “loser” on his back. Around every corner and behind every door someone would jump out and mutter threats about Tsutomu getting even with him. So, Satoshi was on edge the entire day, constantly preparing himself for the next attack.
Satoshi sighed in relief when the school’s-over bell rang. He gathered his things quickly and rushed for the exit, noticing that the gang also seemed to be in a hurry to leave. After walking for about 10 minutes, Satoshi followed some narrow laneways to reach Sakae Dori and headed south towards the housing project. He passed a crowd of men and a few women milling around betting on a dice game (“Chou-han”) in the kids play area. The actual kids were playing nearby under the watchful eyes of their mothers. Amid the human traffic and gesturing, Satoshi didn’t notice the gang members signaling to each other.
Satoshi was just starting to feel safe when Tsutomu appeared from nowhere and growled menacingly, “Where do you think you’re going?”
Satoshi gasped and tried to side step the bully, but, in doing so, walked straight into a classmate with menacing eyes. Another member of the gang grabbed Satoshi’s backpack by its one good strap and pushed him into Tsutomu. The teenage giant grabbed Satoshi’s shirt collar and dragged him across the road and into a small side lane with a vacant two-car parking lot. Satoshi struggled against his firm grip, but his efforts were futile. In the small parking lot, Tsutomu threw Satoshi on the ground and started punching and kicking him. Satoshi’s curled position and Tsutomu’s rage triggered something primal in the group of boys. They joined in, indiscriminately kicking and high off the thrill of the hunt. Instinctively, Satoshi covered his head with his arms, causing his attackers to focus largely on his exposed stomach and legs. He closed his eyes, grimacing with each new blow. It hurt. He preferred his make-believe worlds where the heroes had the power to fight back. Despite the pain, Satoshi didn’t make a sound, which further infuriated his attackers.
After a minute or so, Tsutomu grew tired. He signaled for his friends to back off and stood up to deliver a coup de grace, a goal scoring kick to Satoshi’s head.
As Tsutomu brought his leg back and his lips curled over his teeth in a sneer, a voice shouted from behind.
“Hey, what are you little bastards doing? Get out of my parking space!”
Fate had conspired to have the local green grocer return to the housing project building at a critical point. Tsutomu muttered an expletive and glared at Satoshi as if to say “this isn’t over.” Then the gang scattered, leaving Satoshi laying on the ground. The green grocer rushed over.
“Are you okay?” the man asked genuinely.
Satoshi nodded and rose shakely into a sitting position. He was bruised, shaken, and terrified, but truly okay.
“Thank you for helping me,” Satoshi said as he bowed his head to the shopkeeper. He then adjusted his bulky sweater and removed three layers of cardboard, wincing as he came in contact with newly formed bruises. Satoshi noticed that the man was still watching him and smiled sheepishly.
“Call me paranoid, but it helps to be prepared,” he said softly. Then he stood and limped off towards home, trying, but failing not to cry.
When Satoshi opened the front door, he called out to his mother that he’d already eaten a snack on the way home and had to study, so he didn’t want to be disturbed. In reality, his face was scratched up and bleeding, he’d been crying, and he was still coming down from a trauma “high.” He didn’t want anyone to see him in such a vulnerable state. It took him several hours to clean up and fully calm down. He tried to use some meditation techniques that he learned during his pilgrimage, but found that he wasn’t able to clear his mind. Instead, his thoughts alternated between panic and plan as he decided what to do about Tsutomu and his gang.
By midnight, Satoshi decided he needed to make a meaningful counter attack. But how? Him and whose army?
Each term, Japanese junior and high schools had exams. The pressure from these exams was ever present, interwoven into the students’ school experiences, as well as the teacher’s jobs. Junior high school students took their high school entrance exams in their last year, and it just so happened that this year was that seminal event. The pressure was on. Everyone was stressed–teachers, students, and students’ parents. Therefore, no one had tolerance for kids stepping out of line, and Satoshi intended to take advantage of that fact.
For several weeks after the beating at the housing project, Satoshi varied his routes and times to walk home to avoid Tsutomu and his gang. Of course, he equipped himself with cardboard padding as an extra precaution. The gang tried to follow him several times, but Satoshi’s new routes included shops and main roads where he could divert into a store or stay in easy view of oncoming traffic. One time, he waited in a convenience store for over an hour before his perpetrators grew bored and wandered off. Satoshi knew his attackers wanted blood, but wouldn’t do anything in such a publicly visible space. Although the roads by Satoshi’s home were little more than a car wide, he was protected by the familiar faces of his neighbors and family, who would surely rush to his defense in case of an emergency.
Then one day, mid-week, Satoshi decided on a plan of action.
Satoshi’s favorite cop TV show was an American one called Crime Story, which was dubbed in Japanese. Dubbing was a painfully slow production process that took ages, guaranteeing that the shows would be 6 to 24 months later than their original debut in the US. Kids in Japan didn’t know or care about the delay though. They loved watching unbridled violence, especially since the good guys always got even. As Satoshi watched Crime Story that day, he saw it in a new lens and started taking mental notes about how he could get rid of Tsutomu. Perhaps TV wasn’t the smartest reference, but coupled with his own powerful reasoning capabilities, who knew where his plan would lead?
One rainy and humid day, the type of day that made industrial downtown Kawasaki seem even less comfortable than usual, Satoshi decided it was time to act. He waited until his family was fast asleep, which was somewhere around 2am. He knew his overworked parents likely wouldn’t wake up. Then, Satoshi dressed in dark colors, packed some things in his mended backpack, and quietly headed out the door. Not wanting to be gone long, he borrowed his dad’s bicycle and quickly made his way back to school. As he pedaled through the night, he felt anxious to start his plan. Adrenaline coursed through his body, enhancing his ability to see and cycle. He didn’t know what revenge felt like, but soon he would find out.
Near the school, he parked the bicycle behind a rubbish collection point, jumped the low steel fence at the rear of the caretaker’s tool shack and snuck across the courtyard, well out of sight from the street. Everything was damp, and the streets were empty. The nearest police box (“Koban”) was several blocks away, across a major thoroughfare, and Satoshi had already confirmed on previous evening sorties that officers didn’t prioritize patrolling the school vicinity. Rather, the cops were more interested in keeping an eye out for miscreants near the housing projects.
After reaching the side of the main school building, Satoshi put on rubber dishwashing gloves that he had taken from his mother’s cleaning bucket and pulled out some supplies. With slightly shaking hands, he taped the window like he’d seen on TV, which was supposed to muffle the break-in, and then, after one deep breath, smacked the glass with a rock. He cringed as the rock loudly crashed through the window, echoing with a tinkling of glass. Darn, that didn’t work, Satoshi thought. He nervously looked around to see if anyone noticed, but the early morning remained still. All clear! He proceeded to reach in, careful not to cut himself, and opened the window so he could climb into the school.
After entering, Satoshi took a fingerless tough-boy leather glove that he’d stolen from Tsutomu’s jacket at school a couple of days before and scraped it on the remaining glass in the window frame. He then planted the evidence on the floor, but out of sight near the wall. He padded down the familiar corridor, noting how spooky it was in the dark, until he reached the headmaster’s office. He felt bad trespassing in the space of someone who’d helped him, but reassured himself that it was for the greater good.
With renewed determination, he stole some of the headmaster’s trophies and mementos and stashed them in his backpack. He then took a large screwdriver and broke open the flimsy lock on the headmaster’s antique desk drawer. The big bottom drawer contained a petty cash box, so Satoshi grabbed some money and receipts. As he carried out his plan, he ignored the unclean feelings that were reaching out from the back of his mind. This was survival, he thought, and justified. After ensuring that the office hinted at a break-in, but was not an obvious framing attempt, he scratched “Die” (死ね: “Shine”) on the chalk blackboard behind the headmaster’s desk. Then, he fled.
During the previous few days, while Tsutomu was trying, but failing to stalk Satoshi, he was unaware that Satoshi was in fact, trailing him (just like in Crime Story). Satoshi studied the bully’s schedule and found out where he lived and when he usually got home. Tsutomu’s neighborhood was equally as rough as Satoshi’s, but was filled with more apartment buildings and thus, less neighbors who actually cared about each other.
Directly after the break-in, Satoshi pedaled over to the bully’s neighborhood and put the headmaster’s things along with the receipts from the petty cash box into a supermarket plastic shopping bag. He then stuffed the bag into the trash disposal box behind Tsutomu’s apartment building. Satoshi was thorough and knew, due to previous research, that the collection of non-burnables wouldn’t occur until 6 days later. Satoshi assumed that the police would find the stolen items before they were hauled off by trash collectors.
Next, Satoshi rushed over to the postal slots for building residents. After compulsively checking his surroundings for witnesses, he inserted a portion of the stolen cash into a bank money transfer envelope (a special sealable “kakitome” payment envelope) and slid it into Tsutomu’s apartment postal slot. On the outside, he had written Tsutomu’s name with his shaky left hand. He wanted to make it look like Tsutomu was going to profit from the school break-in.
Finally, Satoshi’s plan was complete. He stared at his hands for a moment, both appalled and impressed that he could accomplish such a feat, and then retreated back into the night.
The next day was quite a spectacle for the students of Minamiagawara Junior High. When they arrived at the front gate between 7:30am and 7:50am, prior to the school’s start at 8:15am, they noticed police cars out front. The students quickly sought to fill the information gaps, and by 8:00am, rumors about a killing were quickly spreading.
“I heard they found someone’s body in the gym,” one girl whispered.
“No, the body was in the bathroom. She was a student murdered by Aka Manto,” another boy added.
“Someone told me a serial killer murdered multiple students, and he’s still hiding in the school,” a first year girl spoke in a voice laden with fear.
Satoshi floated through the outlandish rumors, unable to hear them due to his own anxious thoughts. Once in homeroom, Satoshi’s teacher quickly assured everyone that there was no murderer or killing in the school and that the problem was far less dramatic. Nonetheless, rumors ran even more rampant later that afternoon when the headmaster and a police officer appeared at the door of a classroom and motioned for the teacher to come outside. The students watched open-mouthed as the three adults started looking at Tsutomu.
Tsutomu, aware of the attention, started feeling nervous. In fact, he had been peeping at a teenage girl in the apartment opposite of his who always forgot to close her blinds in the evenings. How did the police know about that though?
Then, the three professionals called him to come outside.
That was the last time Satoshi and the other students at Minamigawara Junior High saw Tsutomu until years later. Eventually, Satoshi pieced together the chain of events that lead up to Tsutomu’s expulsion.
When the headmaster noticed some of his things were missing, he immediately suspected Tsutomu of a revenge attack and contacted the police, who of course found the headmaster’s belongings in the trash of Tsutomu’s apartment building. The police never located the cash though. Tsutomu’s father had found the Kakitome envelope first and used the funds to get drunk with some of his mates. Tsutomu was arrested, sent to juvenile detention, and assigned to the Tama Youth Detention Center near Hachioji, Tokyo, for the rest of the year.
After the shame of having a thief for a son, his father refused to take him back, and Tsutomu had to go live with an aunt in the frosty northern countryside of Akita. For a kid from Kawasaki, the remote and cold area was a sentence worse than juvenile detention. Then, rumor had it that Tsutomu fell into some bad company in Akita, and wound up getting involved with the Yakuza.
Satoshi was on tenterhooks for weeks after Tsutomu was arrested. Would he be discovered? Did someone see him out at a strange time of night doing strange things with another person’s trash? However, as weeks passed without consequence, Satoshi finally rationalized that no one saw him, or if they did, they didn’t say anything. Now, Satoshi was only left to wrestle with his own conscience, which was no easy task thanks to his overactive mind.
One day, some weeks later, he was sick with the flu and stayed at Satsuki Obaa-chan’s place next door while his parents were working and siblings were at school. He replayed the entire chain of events in a feverish dream, which was so realistic that he woke up panting and covered in sweat. He turned to his side and saw his elderly neighbor beside his bed holding his hand. When he looked at her eyes, he shrunk under her accusatory stare and guilt flooded his brain.
“Satoshi, you’ve been a naughty boy!” she said quite harshly.
His eyes opened wide, which caused her to soften her tone, “I heard everything. I don’t agree with what you did, but I believe you must have had a good reason. Don't fear failure, because through failure you will find the path to success.”
He bowed his head.
“I promise I’ll learn from this,” he said earnestly, and he meant it.
Knowing that his elderly neighbor knew of his immoral actions was shameful enough for Satoshi. From the experience, he learned that taking revenge was a bitter pill. The monks were right. If it was written as one’s fate to take punishment from another, it was better to take it on the chin and get that piece of karma done with.
That said, Satoshi did find it intriguing how relatively easy it was to frame Tsutomu, which made him realize that anyone and everyone is vulnerable. From that moment on, Satoshi did a 360 degree personal vulnerability test whenever he took risks. The assessment didn’t stop him from taking risks, but made him pay attention to the details and systematically consider any elements that might boomerang back on him later.