Out of Japan: Police accused of bungling in kidnap tragedy

TOKYO - Japanese viewers watched horror-stricken last week as the case of 19-year-old Yuki Uchida, who was kidnapped and murdered, unfolded on their television screens. Police bungling appeared to be one of the main reasons which led to the death of the woman and by the weekend no one had a kind word to say for a police force that seemed to be slow off its feet and more concerned with maintaining its conviction rate than saving a young life.

Uchida was an innocent-looking, short-haired woman whose picture came to haunt the nation for a week. She had just left school and started her first job, with Kofu Shinkin Bank, in Yamanashi prefecture, west of Tokyo. According to her boss at the bank, Kazuyuki Yamamoto, a man claiming to represent a local magazine called the bank on 10 August and asked for her by name. The caller said he was a journalist for the magazine and wanted to interview Uchida, who was 'known to the magazine', for a story.

With hindsight Mr Yamamoto realised that because Uchida was a new employee, she would have been wearing a name-card on her dress which any bank customer could have read. But at the time he did not see anything strange about the call. Nor did he object to the plan for her to be picked up after work by a taxi at 5.30pm for the 'interview'.

The taxi took her to a sports stadium, where an attendant saw her meeting a man in his forties. That seems to be the last time she was seen alive by anyone except her abductors. That night the police, suspecting a kidnapping when Uchida did not return home, imposed a news blackout. Next day the ransom calls to the bank demanded 45m yen ( pounds 290,000) to be delivered in unmarked paper wrappers.

By now the police were on the job, taping the incoming telephone calls and trying to trace them. For the police in Japan, catching a criminal is not merely their job, it is a matter of honour. Ninety-six per cent of murders and 76 per cent of robberies result in an arrest (compared to 78 and 26 per cent respectively in Britain) and once an arrest has been made it is extremely rare for the suspect to be found not guilty, leading to suspicions that the police and prosecutors are sometimes over-zealous in their efforts to secure a conviction and close a case.

This heavy-handed policing helps to keep crime figures low. But it has its casualties. There have been 179 instances of kidnapping here since the war. In only seven cases have the kidnappers not been caught. But 32 kidnap victims have been killed.

The abductors demanded that the bank manager, Mr Yamamoto, pack the money in a bag, drive to a motorway coffee shop and wait for further instructions. He was then told to drive along the motorway and throw the money out of the window at a spot some five minutes from where he was parked. The caller seemed in a hurry, but the police, who were in constant contact with Mr Yamamoto, told him to wait while they staked out the area.

This seems to have been the fatal mistake: it took the police nearly an hour to get themselves prepared and when Mr Yamamoto finally deposited the money no one showed up. Nor did the woman appear at a nearby temple where her abductors had said she would be released.

'The problem with the Japanese police is no one wants to take a quick decision,' said one television commentator. Instead, everyone has to sit down and have a meeting before a course of action is decided on, he said, adding that this kind of a delay could have been a key factor in Uchida's death.

A week after the aborted ransom delivery, her body was found floating in a river. She appeared to have been dead for a week, suggesting she had been killed as soon as the abductors thought their ransom strategy was not going to work.

The action now shifted to the television networks, which had respected the media blackout for eight days. Harrowing shots were shown of the father going to identify the body. Microphones picked up his enraged screams: 'Who did this, who did this?' Two days later, the funeral was televised.

The police have no clues and no suspects. Yasumitsu Kiuchi, head of the National Police Agency in Tokyo expressed his regret at the delay in police preparations for the dropping off of the ransom.