TOKYO, JAPAN — On August 1, 1997, Norio Nagayama felt the noose tighten around his neck. Nagayama had long been anticipating his appointment with the hangman — for the previous three decades. He could never be sure when the call to the death chamber would come — he just knew that, one day, it would.
The 48-year-old convicted spree killer had been in prison since 1969. The previous year, when he was 19, Nagayama broke into a home on a U.S. Navy base just outside Tokyo and made off with a .22-caliber handgun and 50 bullets.
Over the next four weeks, Nagayama used the weapon to murder four victims in four different cities — Masanori Nakamura, Tomejirō Katsumi, Tetsuhiko Saitō, and Masaaki Itō. His targets were two security guards and two taxi drivers, and he also robbed the cabbies. Nagayama finally got busted while trying to burglarize a school.Related: Knife-Wielding Man Enters Japan Facility For Disabled, Kills 19, Injures 26
Due to his age, the Japanese justice system initially considered Nagayama a juvenile. A change in law later led to him being convicted as an adult and, in 1979, being sentenced to die in the gallows. Further legal proceedings won Nagayama a commutation to life behind bars in 1981, only to have that be overturned six years later.
What might have been an all-too-common tragedy of a youth taking lives and throwing away his own, however, took on a unique dimension in 1971. While locked up, Nagayama penned Tears of Ignorance, an autobiographical account of his being raised in horrific poverty, which he elegantly theorized had driven him to violence.
Tears of Ignorance struck a chord with the critics and mass audiences alike, landing on Japan’s best-seller lists. Nagayama donated any money he made from the book’s sales to the families of the men he killed.
In 1983, Nagayama won the Japan Literature Award for his novel, Wooden Bridge. In total, he published nine written works to major acclaim and financial success, always diverting his proceeds to his victims’ loved ones and charities that aid impoverished children.
Nagayama died that way. His ex-wife, his attorney, and others close to Nagayama only learned of his hanging after the government leaked it to the press. The news came, to put it mildly, as a shock.
Remarkably, in death, Nagayama continues to try to atone for his transgressions. He set up a charity, the Nagayama Children Fund (NCF), to raise money for underprivileged youth the world over (with a special focus on Brazil). The fund continues to direct any royalties generated by his books to relief efforts.
Since 2004, the NCF has mounted an annual benefit concert to great success. Kyoko Otani, Nagayama’s defense lawyer who presides over the NCF, said at the tenth anniversary of the event:
“[Nagayama’s] execution was quite a painful memory, but he has given us the opportunity for getting together once a year to support the poor children. I hope we’ll be able to continue this effort for years to come.”
Nonetheless, not everyone mourns the passing of a killer who cruelly took the lives of four men while he ran rampant in pursuit of quick cash. Toichi Katsumi, the son of a security guard Nagayama shot to death at a shrine in Kyoto, remarked at the time of the hanging: “I feel it is finally over.”
Main photo: Norio Nagayama [Wikipedia]