Solace in Suicide
Japan has traditionally viewed suicide as an honorable way out of disgrace. While viewed as cowardice in the West, in Japan it is seen as courageous. However, the mother of small children who commits suicide and leaves her children orphans is seen negatively, as a witch or demon whose soul will never have peace, a belief that possibly evolved to prevent distraught Japanese mothers from resorting to suicide. Its practical effect is that suicidal mothers are likely to kill their children in what is called oyako-shinju or parent-child suicide. Although such actions are illegal in Japan, a parent who killed his or her children during a suicide attempt would usually be leniently treated by the Japanese legal system.
Even while Fumiko languished in the hospital, there was an outpouring of sympathy for her. Los Angeles County assistant district attorney Louise Comar noted, “People feel badly for Mrs. Kimura.”
Still, Fumiko was charged with two counts of first-degree murder “with special circumstances” – those circumstances in this case being multiple victims — which made her eligible for either life imprisonment with no possibility of parole or the death penalty.
Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans joined to form the Fumiko Kimura Fair Trial Committee. The Chicago Tribune noted, “Her supporters are asking that the American legal system take Kimura’s cultural heritage into consideration when the case is tried. So far they have collected more than 1,000 signatures on petitions asking the district attorney to charge Kimura with involuntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder, and to grant her a probated sentence with ‘supervised rehabilitation.’”
Japanese-American attorney Mike Yamaki commented on the seeming absurdity of sentencing someone to death who had attempted suicide. “The State of California is going to spend money to put this woman to death when she’s going to do it herself for free?” he asked incredulously. “That would be stupid. As for a life sentence, she’s no danger to society anymore. The only person she’s going to harm is herself,” said Yamaki, overlooking the possibility that Fumiko might have more children.
Some observers thought the sympathy for Fumiko was misplaced. D.A. Comer remarked, “She had absolutely, positively no right to kill the children. I’m an individual and have normal sympathies for her, but I’m also horrified that a woman would walk into the water and kill her children. . . We’re talking about taking the life of another person.”
A homicide detective who was called to the beach when the Kimuras were found said, “Nobody seems to remember that two children died. All they remember is the mother and how distressed she was. But how terrible it must have been to be drowned, forcibly drowned. Those children had bruises on them. Somebody just doesn’t submit to the pain of drowning.”
Some Japanese-Americans were torn about the case. George Narumi, husband of a woman who owned a store in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles, told a newspaper reporter that the drownings were “an unforgivable act.” His wife Beverly Narumi pointed out that while it may be common, oyako-shinju is “not a thing you’re supposed to do.”
At least one observer, William Wetherall, a member of the Japan Suicide Prevention Association and journalist who often writes on issues connected with American ethnic minorities, believed that the Japanese background was over-emphasized by media in this case. He pointed out, “Mothers everywhere (and fathers, too) are capable of killing their children, then themselves, when marital, economic, and other problems exceed their ability to cope.” He also said that, contrary to Fumiko’s assertion that her rescuers had to be Caucasians, people in Japan “are known to stop even strangers from killing themselves.”
In the immediate aftermath of his children’s deaths, the shocked and distressed Itsuroku rambled about committing suicide. He was briefly hospitalized and placed in protective custody until doctors were convinced that he could be released without trying to harm himself.
When he came home, he made a shrine for his dead son and daughter on a small coffee table. A photograph of Kazutaka in a black-and-white kimono stood on the table. Beside it were toy cars and trucks and paper planes. There was also a picture of Yuri in a pink dress.
A small private funeral was held in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles for the children. Their bodies were cremated. Itsuroku’s brother took their ashes to Japan where they were buried with family.
He was soon regularly visiting his jailed wife, often arriving before daybreak.
In his first meeting with his Fumiko after the killings, he said, “Do you need me? I need you.”
She answered, “Yes.”
“We will just leave things as they are and we will live a new way in the future,” he said.
A reporter asked if he still saw his girlfriend and he answered with an emphatic American slang expression, “No way!”
Did he forgive his wife? “Of course,” he answered. He continued with the disturbing statement that he was “envious” that her bond with the children was so powerful that she could hold them while her head was underwater.
He could not return to work in the immediate aftermath of his children’s deaths but was also upset at home. “It is so quiet at home, no sounds of children,” he said. He spent much time pasting photographs of his children into a scrapbook. He had to take medication to sleep.
The deeply depressed woman who had wanted to die was in the psychiatric unit of the Los Angeles County Jail. Incarcerated, mourning her children, and facing the possibility of imprisonment or execution, she now had to struggle to find a reason to live when her life was more horrible than it had ever been before.
Doctors treated her with anti-depressants and counseling. In a telephone interview, Fumiko said in a weak, shaky voice, “Living is hard and dying is hard. I must try to want to live.”
Much of her time was spent writing poems like the following
A weak woman must not become a strong woman.
A weak woman must have the courage
To accept what she is . . .
A simple woman, that’s me.
Probation for the Dual Drownings
Prosecution and defense worked out a plea agreement that showed great leniency to Fumiko. In October 1985, she pled no contest to two counts of voluntary manslaughter. This meant that she could have been sentenced to a maximum of 13 years imprisonment or placed in a mental hospital.
However, on November 21, 1985 Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert W. Thomas sentenced her to a year in jail and five years of probation. The jail sentence was credited with time served and, since she had been in jail for a year, she was freed immediately and ordered to continue psychiatric treatment.
Her attorney, Gerald H. Klausner, commented, “The courts can never punish her as much as she punishes herself.”
The writer has not been able to uncover more recent information on Fumiko Kimura. It is likely she prefers an obscurity that allows for privacy.