KASHIWAZAKI, NIIGATA PREFECTURE – JAPAN.
Almost a decade after going missing, Fusako Sano approached police officers who had been called to a hospital. She identified herself and explained she had not stepped outside since Nobuyuki Satō kidnapped her in 1990. The case would become known throughout Japan as “The Niigata Girl Confinement Incident.”
Lead Up to Crime
In 1990, nine-year-old schoolgirl Fusako Sano was attending school in Sanjo, Japan. Sanjo is located 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of Tokyo, and originally formed from a collection of villages. At the time it had a population of around 85,000. It has a river port, a long history of producing metal tools, and is prone to flooding in torrential rains. The Sano family owned rice paddies that they worked.
Nobuyuki Satō lived in the seaside city of Kashiwazaki on Japan’s northwestern seaboard, southwest of Sanjo. Satō was an unemployed, 28-year-old male, who lived with his mother, occupying the upstairs floor of her house. Satō’s father died in 1989, and afterwards his neighbours noticed that his behaviour became increasingly erratic. His violent outbursts resulted in him breaking the windows and doors of his mother’s home. His aggression also turned towards his mother, who neighbours claimed once had a black eye. In the same year, Satō came to the attention of police after he attempted to kidnap a young girl. He was unsuccessful and while on probation he made his second attempt.
On November 13, 1990, Fusako Sano was in the fourth grade, when she watched an afternoon game of baseball at her school with two friends. After the game finished she walked home alone.
Satō drove the 57 kilometre (35 mile) journey from Kashiwazaki to neighbouring Sanjo, where he kidnapped Fusako Sano at knifepoint, forcing her into the trunk of his car, before returning home. A large police search was soon underway, but police were unable to find the missing schoolgirl.
Satō took Fusako from his car and moved her upstairs, where he held her captive in his bedroom for almost a decade. Satō had banned his mother from his bedroom during his teens, restricting her to the downstairs storey of the house. Satō suffered from mental illness and kidnapped Fusako because he desperately wanted someone to talk to and keep him company.
Fusako was bound for several months and had adhesive tape placed over her mouth. Satō ordered her to videotape horse races on the television, and if she made a mistake he would punish her by using a stun gun. Other punishments included being punched and threatened with a knife.
Satō cut Fusako’s hair short and made her wear his clothes. Fusako spent most of her time listening to the radio, and during the final year of captivity she was allowed to watch television. Satō provided her with three meals a day, cooked by his mother, or instant food. The door had no lock, but Fusako was banned from touching it. If she attempted to flee, Satō threatened to abandon her alone in the mountains.
If Satō’s mother attempted to venture upstairs he would turn violent. His violence escalated and his behaviour became more erratic, causing his mother to make a series of calls to the social workers at the Niigata Health Centre. When workers attended the house they found the girl and ask the police for help. The police refused to assist and told the social workers to sort out the problem themselves.
As Satō’s unpredictable behaviour increased, he went with Fusako to the hospital. When he started acting violently towards staff, the police were called. A thin, jaundice girl, barely able to walk, approached police and told them her name was Fusako Sano and that she had been abducted.
“For nine years, I did not take a step out of the house. Today I went outside for the first time,” Fusako told police.
When high-ranking police officials were notified of the discovery of the missing girl they had little interest in the matter, deciding instead to play mah-jong.
Fusako was rescued on January 28, 2000. She was now 19 years old, and had been held captive for a total of nine years, two months and 15 days. She was weak and dehydrated. She also suffered serious injuries, including: atrophied leg muscles, where legs are weakened through lack of use; sustained learning difficulties; and would go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of her lack of socialisation, and despite her age, she still behaved like a child.
Nobuyuki Satō’s mother, now 73, claimed she was unaware that Fusako was living upstairs.
“I was too scared to escape and eventually lost the energy to escape,” Fusako reported to police.
Fusako Sano was reunited with her parents who had always remained hopeful of seeing their daughter again.
The news quickly sent shockwaves across Japan, dominating the media. The police were called incompetent, and questions were asked as to why police in neighbouring cities had not worked together on the case. Japan also questioned its sense of community and why neighbours had not noticed anything.
Satō was now 37. He was taken for psychiatric evaluation on January 28, 2000, and formally arrested on February 11 once discharged from hospital. He was diagnosed with several personality disorders, but was still competent to be responsible for his actions, so he was deemed fit to undergo questioning.
Police would claim they had discovered Fusako, but would later have to admit they lied and initially refused to help social workers. The public response to the case would question why the police had not investigated Satō earlier based on his earlier abduction attempt, as he was on probation for a similar crime. Shortly after, several high-ranking police officials resigned, including the Niigata Prefectural Police Chief Koji Kobayashi.
Nobuyuki Satō pleaded guilty before the Niigata District Court in May 2000 to abducting a minor and unlawful confinement resulting in injury.
Public sentiment weighed heavily on the sentence, and the maximum term of 10-years for abduction and confinement was considered too light. Charges of stealing four camisoles worth 2,400 yen, which he gave to Fusako as gifts, were also included in Satō’s sentencing, increasing the prison term to 14 years. He was sentenced on January 22, 2002.
Fusako’s father was upset by the courts inability to enforce a harsher sentence. He released a statement at the conclusion of the trial:
“As parents, we are mortified by the existing situation . . . and cannot help feeling indignation about such a situation. Almost three years have passed since our daughter was released from the long confinement of nine years, two months and fifteen days. However, today’s ruling fails to take account of the weight of the time passed for us and our daughter.”
During his imprisonment, Nobuyuki Satō made a statement to a Japanese journalist: “The feelings of the weak are not worth considering. What else can they do but yield to the strong?”
Satō has spent 250 days in solitary confinement over 10 years and makes continued complaints about the violation of his human rights.
Fusako Sano made some recovery, but her life has been difficult since her captivity. Reflecting on her past brings back painful memories. She has received on-going medical help and counselling. Fusako’s legs regained their strength, and she enjoys long walks and photography. She works with her family on their rice paddies.
Her father died in 2007 after drowning in a favourite pond he would visit on walks with Fusako. She was with her father when he drowned.
Nobuyuki Satō will be eligible for release in 2016.