Junkies and drug addicts usually steal and sell goods to buy hard drugs, but for one Japanese otaku, his theft was fueled by a different sort of addiction. However, when he shoplifted a toy robot from the wrong guys, he became one of peaceful Japan's most wanted criminals.
This story originally appeared on Japan Subculture Research Center.
Last week, on August 19, police arrested 50-year-old Kazutoshi Iwama for shoplifting a "priceless" wind-up tin robot, Tetsujin 28 (Iron man 28), from a toy and manga goods store—-after a two-week manhunt that became the talk of the Internet and headline news in Japan.
For those not familiar with Japanese manga, Tetsujin is a giant robot who first appeared in a manga written and illustrated by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, which was popular in the 50s. In the original story, the robot was developed in the final days of WWII by Japan's Imperial army as a secret weapon to help the empire win the war. After the war, numerous heroes and villains fought for possession of the remote control that would allow anyone to use the giant robot, for good or evil. Finally, he comes under the control of a young private detective, who uses Tetsujin 28 to stop crime and fight other robots. Sometimes, Tetsujin 28 and his boy master even worked with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police.
In other words, not only did our hapless thief steal a valuable toy robot, he practically stole a police mascot. No wonder the store, Mandarake, which claims to be the largest manga and anime shop in the world, got pissed off—as Kotaku previously reported. They took matters into their own hands and on August 5th, they posted a fuzzy picture of the decidedly un-ninja-like thief on their website and demanded that he return the toy by the August 12th or be exposed to the world.
WARNING: This is a message to the criminal who stole the wind-up walking Tetsujin 28 toy from the 4th floor at 5pm on August 4th. If you do not return it by August 12th we will remove the mosaic and show your face to the world.
It was the comic book world version of a WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE poster. It caused major controversy in Japan for possibly advocating vigilante justice and/or "invasion of privacy." Talk shows debated it, newspapers wrote it up. (Yes, it's a little hard to believe, but while police shoot alleged thieves to death in the streets of the US, in peaceful Japan, overzealous store owners seeking to catch shoplifters are causing controversy.)
When Mr. Iwama was caught, he initially denied involvement in the crime, but when confronted with hard evidence, he eventually fessed up saying, "I shoplifted in order to get money to buy monster action figures," according to the Asahi Shimbun.
"I love the sort of monster figures and dolls that appear on Ultraman, and I wanted to buy more with the money I made from the action figure [I stole]," explained Iwama, who has been working a series of part-time jobs. According to the police, Iwama says that he noticed the glass case holding the robot was unlocked and stole it on impulse. He then sold the robot to another manga goods store for 64,000 yen ($640) several days later. The police tracked him down from that sale. When they searched Iwama's home in Chiba, Japan, they found a large collection containing dozens of monster action figures. Police are now investigating to see whether other stolen nerd contraband is in the collection.
Iwama claims that he did not know of the public threat made by the company until after he sold the item. He reportedly told the police, "I didn't hear the news about my picture being posted until after I'd sold it. I wanted to return it then but I couldn't."
On the other hand, Mandarake's stunt raised questions of whether or not they were committing a crime themselves amongst the legal community and has created a lively on-line debate.
"Under the provisions of the Penal Code, it's criminal intimidation if you threaten someone, even if it's to take back a legitimate loan," said Hisashi Sonoda, a criminal law professor from Konan University Law School, according to the Sankei Shimbun.
A Tokyo police officer in the criminal investigative division told Japan Subculture Research Center on background, "Technically speaking, the way the store handled it could have constituted criminal intimidation but no sane police officer would want to take that case. And I doubt any prosecutor would actually file charges. The wording of their warning could have been a little better."
The detective also noted that if the store had exposed an innocent man, they could be held liable for criminal defamation, which is a crime punishable with time in jail.
Masuzo Furukawa, the president of the company that owns the "Mandarake" chain stores, told Japan Subculture Research Center prior to the arrest via email, "Our basic principle is 'condemn the offense, but not the offender,' but if he doesn't return the stolen item we will release his photograph and take actions to identify the criminal." Mr. Furukawa stated to the press after the arrest that shoplifters should beware, and that in the future the store may take similar measures.
However, due to pressure from the police, Mandarake later decided to not release the man's photo. The Tokyo Nakano Police Department allegedly said that the store's threat and the media attention surrounding it had "hindered the investigation" and they asked the shop to leave matters in the hands of the police.
Speaking of police, according to the National Police Agency, shoplifting in Japan is a persistent problem. Although shoplifting incidents have slowly decreased since its peak of 158,020 cases in 2004, in 2013 there were 126,386 cases that amounted to more than 2 billion yen in damages. There were 85,464 people arrested in 2013. 37.7 percent of them were over 65. Many elderly cite economic hardships or debt as a reason for stealing, with many of the items being inexpensive items such as groceries and daily necessities.
While the store was unable to carry out their own comic-book justice by unmasking the criminal, the media attention surrounding the story serves as a warning to toy robot-stealing bandits everywhere: stealing from otaku is a bad idea. Not only may you be publicly shamed, you might also get arrested—even after Mandarake decided not to release Mr. Iwama's photo, Japan's television media had no problem broadcasting the unpixelated photo after his arrest. If anything, he should at least be grateful that the owners of the store didn't have a life-sized Tetsujin 28 robot hunt him down... because the days when a smart otaku can make their own killer robots may not be that far away.
Jake Adelstein has been an investigative journalist in Japan since 1993. Considered one of the foremost experts on organized crime in Japan, he works as a writer and consultant in Japan and the United States. Adelstein writes for The Atlantic Wire, The Daily Beast, and Japan Subculture Research Center. Find him on Twitter @jakeadelstein.
Angela Erika Kubo is a Tokyo-based freelance writer who has worked with The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and is currently an assistant editor with the Japan Subculture Research Center. You can find her on Twitter @aekubo.