The Trial of Fumiko Kimura

When a Japanese woman attempted to
drown herself and her children off a
California beach in 1985, the children
perished, their mother survived,
and she became a media sensation.
But was she simply emotionally disturbed,
or were her actions dictated by
her cultural background?

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
PHP Intersect, 2(7)19, July 1986, pages 6-9 (Special Report)

"MOM KILLS KIDS AND SELF. We've seen the headline a thousand times. But this time the story is about us. About a woman who is driven to murder and suicide. About a man who comes home from work to find his family dead. Flung by tragedy into an examination of his married life, he faces a newsreel of truths about his own yearnings, his failings, his deep sympathy for his wife, for women."

Thus begins the dust cover of Alan Saperstein's first novel, Mom Kills Kids and Self (Macmillan, 1979). The story is set in the United States, and the characters are as American as apple pie.

Mother-child murder-suicide, in which a mother kills her children in conjunction with her own suicide, is supposed to be a widespread custom in Japan but only a rare crime in other countries. From newspaper accounts and academic reports, however, it is clear that mothers everywhere (and fathers, too) are capable of killing their children, then themselves, when marital, economic, and other problems exceed their personal capacity to cope.

Yet national-character stereotypes prevailed in the media coverage of thirty-two-year-old Fumiko Kimura's attempt to drown herself with her four-year-old son and six-month-old daughter off a Santa Monica, California, beach in January 1985.

Because Kimura was a Japanese immigrant, although she had lived in southern California nearly half her life, people were quick to call her behavior a "cultural act" that was considered "honorable" in Japan, where the courts are usually lenient in such cases. Some even dubbed it a "ceremonial drowning," as though she had contemplated murder-suicide to fulfill a ritualistic need.

Whatever her motives, Kimura had no intention of sparking a debate on the causes of her behavior when she waded into the ocean, a child in each arm to die with her. It was, after all, a beach she loved, filled with memories, where she often went for spiritual relief.

Kimura's decision to drown herself with her children was probably impulsive, but nonetheless resolute. All the classic elements of murder-suicide contributed to the psychotic delusions and narrowing of consciousness that left her vulnerable to the aggressive impulses that she would ordinarily have been able to control. She had endured several days of insomnia, treated with alcohol and sleeping pills, while dwelling on life's inequities, exacerbated by domestic chores, a son kept home from school with a cold, a nursing daughter who needed more milk, and uncertain support from people who knew that she was behaving erratically.

But things didn't happen as planned. All three were unconscious but alive when pulled from the water minutes later and taken to different hospitals. Only Kimura recovered, however, and, like many suicide survivors, she initially resented being rescued.

California authorities, however, were committed to keeping Kimura both alive and in the United States to face two counts of felony child endangering and first-degree murder. She was jailed in lieu of US$50,000 bail, set by a judge who feared that she might try "to complete the act" of suicide, and bail was raised to $100,000 when a prosecutor argued that she might try to leave the country.

Kimura became a media sensation when some members of southern California's community of nearly 30,000 Japanese and over 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry concluded that she could spend many years in prison, or even be executed, if the court was not persuaded that her act had been culturally provoked. The Fumiko Kimura Fair Trial Committee criticized how she had been questioned through police interpreters in the hospital, where she had confessed after waiving her right to remain silent. The committee doubted that she had clearly understood her rights under federal and state laws, and did not want her to be judged and punished by American standards.

Those who sought a cultural defense were apparently unaware of the universal aspects of murder-suicide; despite frequent encounters with murder and suicide in news and entertainment media, as well as in literature and drama, people understand surprisingly little about the human nature of such behavior. Nor did the cultural defense advocates fully understand the rationale of a "psychiatric defense" in the context of plea bargaining.

Some of Kimura's supporters were cultural determinists, who saw her act as evidence of ethnic differences in human behavior. For others, though, the case was simply a pretext for criticizing the American legal system, which they believe can be unfair to minorities, especially immigrants who may not be aware that some of their ethnic customs are in violation of Anglo-American laws.

According to one report, Kimura said of her rescuers: "They must have been Caucasians, otherwise they would have let me die." Kimura was not just repeating a racial stereotype about attitudes toward suicide in Japan (where in real life as well as in popular TV fare, people are known to stop even strangers from killing themselves); she was also using the stereotype to rationalize her behavior in what she felt was an ethnically hostile environment. "I can understand English," she admitted to a Japanese-speaking interviewer weeks later, "but I'm getting tired of being surrounded by English-speaking persons."

Fourteen years of life in the United States had not left Kimura a well-adjusted immigrant. Her maladjustment should not, however, be confused with culture shock. Kimura had her share of personal failures, and some of these were no doubt aggravated by her inability to accommodate cultural differences. But no one has ever behaved as she did because of one culture, much less a collision of two cultures.

Like most people who resort to murder or suicide, Kimura was isolated from other people by self-imposed limitations on her relationships with neighbors and friends, and by the slowness of those around her to hear her cries for help in time to draw her into the social folds where her problems could have been talked out and shared.

Japanese mothers, wherever they happen to live, suffer the usual human reactions to personal problems -- anxiety, depression, anger, despair. But few kill others or themselves. And many of those who commit suicide do not kill their children, while many who kill their children do not commit suicide. There is no cultural pattern in such behavior because which mothers resort to murder, suicide, or both when things go wrong depends entirely on the mother's personality, given the same cultural values.

Although comparable American statistics are not available, the impression is that Japanese society may produce more mothers who are capable of killing their children when they become suicidal. Contrary to popular belief, however, murder-suicide is not regarded as "customary" or "ceremonial" or "honorable" by Japanese media, police, prosecutors, or courts. Such acts are seen only as tragedies, which require great sympathy because they are understood as personal failures that were triggered by social circumstances.

Only when explaining murder-suicide to people who culturally view such behavior as bizarre do expressions like "tradition," "ritual," and "face" become necessary. This need to impute an anthropological exoticism to murder-suicide in Japan, but not to identical acts in Western countries, stems from an unpreparedness to recognize that Japanese murder-suicide is really human behavior costumed in national-character myths that began centuries ago with caricatures of Japan as a land of people who value death more than life.

Japan's penal code defines five crimes of homicide:

1. homicide;
2. killing an ascendant;
3. preparation for homicide or killing an ascendant;
4. participation in suicide (to instigate or assist another to commit suicide or to kill someone at his request or with his consent);
5. attempts to commit homicide, kill an ascendant, or participate in suicide.

The killing of an infant or an older child by a parent is usually prosecuted as homicide, which may be punished "with death or penal servitude for life or not less than three years." A typical judgment in a case of mother-child murder-suicide in Japan will be a three-year sentence suspended with four or five years probation. Some mothers, though, have had to serve time on unstayed sentences.

Punishment can be retributive, educational, or cautionary. Some critics argue that mothers in Japan would be less inclined to kill their children if Japanese courts were to pass out stiffer sentences. But people about to kill others suicidally would probably not be deterred by threats of penal servitude or death. They are either incapable of considering the legal consequences that await them should they survive, or they understand the possible punishments but are certain that they will not be alive to face them.

The notion that permissive laws would result in an increase in child-killing has been cited as one reason why England's very tolerant Infanticide Act of 1938 has not been made even more lenient. The act specifically calls for a charge of manslaughter "where a woman by any willful act or omission causes the death of her child being a child under the age of twelve months, but at the time of the act or omission the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child."

England's Infanticide Act was ahead of its time, but the relationship it presupposes between child-killing and the postpartum depression syndrome is presently anything but clear. Some English lawmakers have recommended broadening the act to include "circumstances consequent upon the birth" in addition to postpartum depression. A plan to recommend that "the killing of older children of the family should be infanticide and not murder" was also considered but then dropped, partly because dissenters felt that the effect of such broadening would be "to make adverse social conditions a defense to child-killing."

It is clear that Kimura would not have needed a cultural defense in Great Britain, which has formally treated infanticide with leniency for nearly half a century. The killing of older children is also prosecuted with case-by-case allowances for mitigating circumstances.

In the United States, criminal laws and their prosecution vary with each state, but most states will treat infanticide (and filicide) as homicide. The main question will be, as it was in Kimura's case, was the homicide murder or manslaughter? If murder, what degree of murder? If manslaughter, was it voluntary or involuntary? Kimura herself seems to have suggested that there were "cultural aspects" to her act when she confessed to police investigators. But her attorney, Gerald Klausner, called a cultural defense "absurd" because he knew that the cultural issue would work against his client. "If we use or attempt to use cultural thinking as a defense or an explanation for an act," he explained in a television interview, "what you're saying is that a person is totally normal, his thinking is very clear, and that he did what he feels is right and what he believes in."

The adversarial nature of the pretrial hearings gave Kimura's supporters cause for alarm. Only much later did they realize that a prosecutor's bark is often a public gesture and not an intention to bite in the name of the law for its own sake. Plea bargaining, a common and fairly open practice in the United States (but more suspect and clandestine in Great Britain and practically unknown in Japan), allows the prosecution to reduce charges for a variety of reasons, some expedient (to relieve crowded court calendars), others humanitarian (to give a first offender a break).

Despite its hard-nosed posturing, the prosecution showed a deep understanding of Kimura's problems and needs as a distressed human being, and it was willing to accept a psychiatric defense. No one articulated the hazards of a cultural defense better than deputy district attorney Lauren Weis, who said in the same TV interview:

"If the cultural aspect was brought into it, the elements of murder might have been able to have been proven by the prosecution. Because if Mrs. Kimura did in fact kill her children because of her cultural background, it would seem to show that she intended to kill them, and that she was competent, and that she was thinking of doing that, that she was deliberately doing that."

Even in Japan a cultural defense would have met with disaster. No Japanese court would have encouraged an effort to rationalize murder-suicide as a customary practice based on a tradition of honor. The first thing a confessed defendant must do is to acknowledge the gravity of the charges without making excuses. Any effort to vindicate the act for which one has been arrested and arraigned would be taken as a sign of insincerity. Only when a defendant has shown a genuine capacity to repent can mitigation be considered.

Japanese trial transcripts clearly show that defenses of parent-child murder-suicide are based on clarifying the extenuating social and psychological factors that warrant leniency. Japanese courts recognize that killing another person homicidally (but even unintentionally or through negligence) is a serious offense against society. But they stress the rehabilitation of defendants who acted in a state of mental confusion or duress rather than from criminal design.

In October 1985, Kimura pleaded no contest (equivalent to a guilty plea) to reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter, which recognizes an intent to kill but not with malice. In November she was sentenced to one year in prison with credit for the months she spent in custody while under prosecution, placed on five years probation, and ordered to undergo further psychiatric treatment. Recommendations for clemency brought her an early release in December.

Society has entrusted Kimura to the open prison of her own conscience. No one thinks that rejoining the world will be easy for her. But she has vowed to rebuild her life, and those closest to her are confident that she is strong enough to do so.

British forensic pathologist Keith Simpson once wrote of the faith that society places in the ability of individuals to overcome personal tragedies like Kimura's. An English woman drowned her three-month-old son after hearing news that her husband's ship had been sunk and assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that he had died. She had already been depressed and decided to do away with the child and herself.

"She pleaded guilty to infanticide and was bound over for two years," he wrote. "This offense is always regarded by the law with great sympathy for the mother: a binding over (i.e., not to repeat the offense or commit any other within a prescribed period) is usual, and this lenience is rarely misplaced."

If American novels like Mom Kills Kids and Self remind us that Japanese mothers do not have a monopoly on abnormal behavior, then the judgment handed down in Kimura's case suggests that U.S. jurists share the capacity of their Japanese (and British) peers to recognize mitigating factors in criminal cases.

In ruling (as it did, in effect) that Kimura's cultural background had nothing to do with the essentials of her act, but that she was emotionally ill at the time, a California court saw a Japanese woman as just another human being. This is a priceless sign of acceptance in a country that during World War II failed to treat its citizens of Japanese descent like other Americans.

William Wetherall is a researcher, journalist, and writer who specializes in mental health, ethnic minorities, and popular culture. He is a member of the Japan Suicide Prevention Association, for which he is compiling a bibliography on suicide in Japan.