Dead-babies case presents Japan with a fresh horror

"The newspapers and TV claimed that the whole place stank terribly," said the landlord of the small apartment building. "But there was no smell at all. In the messiest room I found a bag and it was only when I opened it that the smell came out, and after that - horror."

It was left to the police and pathologists to work out what the horror was: the bodies of seven babies, sealed in vinyl bags. The apartment in the dormitory town of Kashiwa, north-east of Tokyo, had been rented by a taxi-driver and his wife.

In June she died of uterine cancer and two months later her husband disappeared. In the nine years the couple had lived in the apartment the woman had never appeared pregnant, said neighbours. The bodies were judged to have been dead for at least a decade. The couple had apparently moved in carrying with them a bag of dead babies.

It seemed like a ghastly freak occurrence - until last weekend, when an equally grim and incredible discovery was made in a company nursery in Tokyo. An employee called the police after detecting a strange smell in the building: in a closet were found five paper bags containing eight infant corpses wrapped in plastic, ranging in age from a few days to a few months.

Yukiko Mikami, 43 , married and with two daughters, had worked part-time in the creche until last year. She was arrested, allegedly confessed and was charged with abandoning the babies. Yesterday two more tiny bodies were discovered in a trunk at her home. She told police all the children were her own.

What do these two dreadful incidents mean? Infanticide has never appeared to be a particular problem in modern Japan, although during the famines of the feudal period it was common for children to be smothered, or exposed, simply to conserve food for their older siblings.

Details of both cases have still not emerged and when they do, will no doubt be thoroughly picked over. The most obvious conclusion is that Japanese society is rapidly becoming as splintered and alienated as that of most industrialised countries - a place where babies can be born, left to die, and remain completely unnoticed.

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