TOKYO — Coin lockers in Japan aren’t just for dead babies anymore.
Tokyo Station, one of Japan’s largest terminals, and “terminal” may be the best word, was plunged into chaos and confusion on Sunday when news leaked that a corpse had been left behind in a coin locker. The firm managing the lockers at the station notified the Tokyo Metropolitan Police about finding the body at roughly 9:00 that morning, according to police sources.
Tokyo Station, like many train stations in Japan, has a large number of coin lockers for travelers to store small, medium-size and large objects, including suitcases.
Police immediately cordoned off the area where the lockers were located, near Tokyo Station’s South Exit, sparking rumors and speculation that a dismembered corpse had been stuffed into them.
In Japan, and especially in Tokyo, where the population is dense and solitude is scarce, chopping up bodies to make them easier to hide, and even mailing them (on one occasion, as sex dolls) to get rid of the evidence, isn’t completely surprising.
The Internet was rife with rumors that a severed head had been placed in one of the smaller-sized coin lockers. By 2:30 pm, in Yahoo Japan’s real time keyword ranking Namakubi, which literally translates as “raw head,” climbed the ranks to number five.
By the evening, the police made an official announcement to explain the situation and stop the rumors: An employee of the station’s coin locker management firm found a yellow suitcase on the morning of April 26. It had been placed in a locker under stairs about 40 meters from a ticket turnstile. The employee took the suitcase into “protective custody” where it was kept on the office premises for more than 30 days. Since no one had claimed the suitcase, staff opened it on the morning of May 31 to check the contents and perhaps find something to identify the owner.
As soon they unlatched it, the employees noticed hair and a rank smell from the suitcase. They called the local Marunouchi police department.
There was some speculation about why the body hadn’t been found sooner or the smell from the suitcase hadn’t tipped off the management firm, but a 30-day waiting period to inspect left-behind sealed luggage is standard and police sources noted the climate control in the station was good, the summer has been mild so far, and that a well-sealed suitcase can trap many odors.
The body is that of a 70- to 90-year-old woman, 4 feet seven inches tall. She was wearing clothes and had been stuffed into the suitcase. There was no sign of injury and no immediate cause of death could be determined. The police are currently investigating it as a case of improper disposal of a corpse, a crime forbidden under Japanese law.
There have been a number of such cases recently. On May 22, the Tokyo Police charged a 68-year-old man with improper disposal of the corpse of his 64 year-old wife, even though she had been cremated. On April 23 the man had dumped her ashes and leftover bone fragments into a supermarket toilet in Tokyo’s Nerima ward. When questioned by the police, the man reportedly confessed to the crime telling them, “She caused me a lot of trouble when she was alive. I hated her.”
As grisly as it sounds, the ubiquitous coin-lockers in Japan’s many train stations have long been dumping grounds for the dead. A rash of dumping unwanted babies in coin lockers inspired Japanese author Ryu Murakami’s best-selling dystopian fiction classic Coin Locker Babies in 1980.
In order to discourage the practice of abandoning unwanted children in such random places, Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto Prefecture introduced a a “baby hatch” to accept infants anonymously from parents who felt they could not raise the children. This “drop-off box” service reportedly resulted in over 90 babies being saved between 2007 and 2012.
While the number of children born declines, and as Japan’s population rapidly ages and many find it difficult to pay for lavish funerals, it’s quite possible that this dumping of a rather old body in a train station locker reflects the demographic change in the land. Funerals are expensive and there are families that can’t afford them.
Two brothers were arrested in Hyogo Prefecture on April 1 for improper disposal of a corpse. The arrest was not an April Fool’s joke. The brothers told the police that they lacked the money to pay for their mother’s funeral services. The prosecutors eventually dropped the case.
Actually, in Japan, even graves are essentially long-term coin lockers. At some Buddhist temples, if the relatives of the deceased cease to pay for the upkeep of the gravesite, after a few decades the “resident” is evicted and new graves go on the market. Even the dead have to pay the rent. That’s life (and death) in Japan.