A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Remembering the 1991 On-campus Assassination of Associate Professor Hitoshi Igarashi- Tsukuba`s Own Charlie Hebdo Affair


Associate Professor Hitoshi Igarashi

Associate Professor Hitoshi Igarashi of Tsukuba University was murdered on the night of July 11, 1991. Though other translators of Salman Rushdies novel `The Satanic Verses’ were attacked before and after his death (Igarashi translated the controversial book into Japanese), the police never seriously pursued any ‘foreign’ connection to the incident- probably under pressure from the Foreign Ministry which did not want to stir up any trouble with the countries upon which Japan is dependant on for oil and gas. The case remained unsolved and was officially closed in 2006 despite the fact that a possible perpetrators have been identified by journalists (and the Immigration Bureau) and the a former Director of the CIA

By Avi Landau

Before being pushed (quite understandably) out from under the spotlight by the announcement that the Islamic State was holding two Japanese hostages and threating to kill them if a 200 million Dollar ransom was not paid within 72 hours (and the suspense that followed) it was the story of the Charlie Hebdo Attack in Paris that dominated the news for a few days in Japan.

The incident not only stimulated the media here, it also stimulated plenty of discussion among usual citizens- something very rare (and surprising) in a country where most poeple only seem truly comfortable when discussing food or the weather.

It seems to me that the Charlie Hebdo attack  gave people a chance to safely comment on BOTH SIDES- a reflection of an important traditional Japanese concept which is quite difficult for  non-Japanese to appreciate- KENKA RYO-SEIBAI (喧嘩両成敗), in which BOTH parties involved in a fight, argument or accident are always guilty (though not necessarily in equal proportion) and where NO ONE is completely innocent when a disturbance occurs (even if a maniac were to suddenly leap on you as you walked along minding your own business- your just being there on that spot at that time would make you share somewhat in the guilt !)

So while I was surprised that so many people wanted to share their thoughts on the attack, I realized that the Charlie Hebdo Incident provided a very good chance to morally expound in a traditional Japanese way: “Of course there is no excuse for murder- but it also important not to insult or humiliate anyone or his/her religion.”

I also had the sense that some older Japanese were imagining how they would feel if the Emperor had been depicted in a Charlie Hebdo cartoon with his pants down – not very pleased- and they realize that if such a cartoon did appear, there would probably be at least one person among Japan`s 120 million citizens who would feel strongly enough to raise a knife or (even better) a sword to defend Japan`s honor !

And though I tried to engage anyone who brought up the subject in a debate about the moral implications of the incident- for me the attack on the Charlie Hebdo, with its story of insults to Muslims and Islam leading to rage and blood-shed REMINDED ME OF SOMETHING which no one else seemed to be mentioning (unless I had missed it !) – the 1991 murder of Associate Professor Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie`s Satanic Verses, in the corridor just outside his office, right here in Tsukuba, on the  Campus of Tsukuba University.

So for me the Charlie Hebdo story was not something new or surprising to at all – it was like DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN – and I wondered why none of my Japanese friends or aquaintances (or anyone in the media, for that matter) was pointing out the similarities between the cases.

I`m sure that some of you reading this  remember the Igarashi case well – but for those who were not here or have never heard of what happened way back in 1991 –  let me briefly retell the story.

Tsukuba University Campus

Tsukuba University Campus. On the morning of July 12, 1991, a cleaning woman found the body of Associate Professor Hitoshi Igarashi by the elevator near his 7th floor office. He was dead, with multiple stab wounds to the face and chest. He was 44 years old at the time of his death and already the author of several books on Islam and translator of several other works: including Salman Rushdie`s controversial The Satanic Verses. Unlike post Carlie Hebdo France, however, instead of demonstrations for freedom of speech and against  and condemnation of violence- there was just a very noticable, deafening silence.


Hitoshi Igarashi (五十嵐一) was born in 1947 in Niigata Prefecture. He got his Doctorate in comparative culture (focusing on Islam) from the University of Tokyo in 1976, and went on to spend a few years studying in pre-revolutionary Iran, returning to Japan before the overthrowing of the Shah in 1979.  He went on to join the faculty of Tsukuba University where from 1986 until his untimely death, he was an Associate Professor of comparative culture and respected scholar of Arabic and Persian literature and history. He wrote and published ten books during his shortened career and translated others- including the Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, and much more notably (and perhaps fatally)- The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

But while Igarashi found this latter book to be an important and fascinating part of a certain genre of traditional Islamic literature, others did not see things in the same light. MAny Muslims found certain elements of Rushdie`s work to be extremely offensive ( I have never read the book myself- nor am I promoting it here- but you can find out more on-line about why it was deemed to be as such an insult to Muslims and Islam). In fact, it stirred such strong emotions that in 1989 the religious leader of Iran at the time- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – issued a FATWA calling for the death of anyone involved in the publication or dissemination of Rushdie`s book. Undaunted by this, Professor Igarashi still went ahead with the publication of his translation (  I remember him telling me- ” I lived in Iran. Everyone there was very kind to me….”)

So while Mr. Rushdie went into hiding and was provided with first-rate security ( at first by Prime Minster Thatcher), Igarashi remained completely non-chalant about the threat ( or at least that was how it seemed to me).

That attitude proved to be fateful

On the morning of July 12, 1991 a cleaning woman found Professor Igarashi lying in a pool of blood by the elevator near his 7th floor office on the Tsukuba University campus. When the police arrived they found he had suffered from multiple stab wounds – and that there was someone else`s blood (type o ) present at the murder scene besides the victim`s (which was a different type).

The police also found bloody footprints (size 27.5) which were believed to have been left by the killer (who was wearing Kung-Fu slippers made in China).

The news spread fast. Shock and fear did, as well.

Some friendly detectives came to visit me soon after the killing. They came back several times. I don`t think I was ever a suspect, but they apparently wanted to speak with Tsukuba`s foreigners in order to garner information they could use in the report they had to write.

I remember being quite astonished by the fact that they did their best to avoid  connecting Igarashi`s murder with the Satanic Verses or the Fatwa. They said that they couldn`t believe (or at least pretended that they couldn`t believe) that a foreigner would be able to find the professor`s office on the campus of a Japanese University where all signs were posted in (Japanese) Kanji characters!

Though I offered to show them how I, a foreigner, could find the offices of any professors on campus they challenged me to, they still insisted they were skeptical about a non-Japanese being able to find his/her way successfully around the campus.

Now that I think about it though, they were probably just making up a lot of excuses to avoid involving any foreign countries in the investigation- especially countries upon which Japan relies on for oil and gas.This was probably done at the urging of the Foreign Ministry.

I say this because even though Japanese journalists in two separate investigative pieces* were able to identify a possible suspect, and even though other translators of Rushdie`s book – in Italy ( Ettore Caprioli on July 3, 1991), Norway (William Nygaard on October 11, 1993) and Turkey (where an event which was to be attended by Aziz Nesi who wanted to publish the book was attacked and a resulting fire left  37 dead- the Sivas Massacre) were also attacked- the police (media, and Foreign Ministry) did not PURSUE THE MATTER sufficiently and finally closed the case in 2006, leaving it officially unsolved.

With the passage of time, the incident has been all but forgotten – even with the Charlie Hebdo attack in the news, Hitoshi Igarashi`s name remains unmentioned, unremembered – even here in Tsukuba where he lectures, wrote and was ultimately cut down.

Why has this happened?

Well for one, the government still tries its best not to stir up trouble with the Middle-East and the Muslim world (while it does not seem to mind it nearly as much when Koreans or Chinese are insulted)- and many people, ready to believe anything the the authorites say, really do accept the police ruling that the murder is a mystery. This would imply the killer was a Japanese with some sort of grudge against Igarashi, and that there was no connection to the Satanic Verses or the Ayatollah`s Fatwa.

This leads into the second explanation for why ‘forgetting’ would set in- the tendency for the Japanese to accept IMAGE OVER REALITY, as well as a tendency to believe that all Japanese are like one and all think and behave alike.

An important element of Japanese identity and  Japanese world-view is that Japan is a safe and peaceful country- and it truly is, when you consider the almost total lack of daily violent crime. But that does not mean that there have not been isolated cases of horrendous violence, as well as terrorism, over the years- the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo Sarin Attacks, the murder in the same year of Aum Shinrikyo executive Murai before millions of people watching on live television, the Osaka School Massacre of 2001, etc.

I do not mean to say that no one remembers these incidents- but I have found that if  crimes or acts of terror in general are being discussed, the Japanese will only recall foreign incidents, forgetting what has happened on their own soil – thus safe-guarding their way of seeing the world-  Japan safe, foreign countries dangerous.

Seeing the violence in Paris confirms the Japanese world-view. Not remembering the Igarashi Case, does the same.

(more extreme examples of the triumph of IMAGE OVER REALITY in Japan are too numerous to list here, but Iet me share these humorous cases:  people telling me to adjuct the passenger seats of their cars as I am getting in to so as to accomodate my long legs. The fact is though, that my legs are no different from those of the average Japanese- a fact clear to the eye. Still, because I am a Westerner, people believe that I am tall- while they, as Japanese must be short.

There is also the case of a friend of mine whose office as a graduate student was quite near that of Professor Igarashi.Nearly every day his Japanese colleagues commented amusedly on how tall he was- while never treating an even taller Japanese colleague in the same way. When my friend pointed out how tall the Japanese student, the response was just embarrassed silence- brought on by the clash of reality and world-image.

The same embarrassed silence will be evoked in the following situations:

Discussing religious wars and religious persecution abroad- you bring up the total suprression of Christianity for more than 200 years by the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Discussing indigenous peoples and how they were mistreated and how their land was stolen- yiu mention the Ainu…….. etc.)


And finally there is what is probably the most important reason for the Professor Igarashi related amnesia- especially in the Japanese press- FEAR. It is understandable that Japanese journalists would stay clear of a topic which has gotten others injured or killed.

In fact………  I am even a little hesitant right now to push the PUBLISH button on my screen. Have I used the wrong words? Have I mentioned some names that I should not have? Will I be insulting anyone? Will I end up being just another case that the police write off as UNSOLVED?

To upload or not to upload… that is the question?

Wel…….here I go………………………………………


*See the October 2010 issue of BUNGEI SHUNJU

Comments are closed.