Nagayama Norio was born in Abishiri, a town best known for its prison, in 1949. The seventh of eight children, he came into a family already unable to sustain itself. His father was a gambling addict, drowning in debts, and his mother was essentially left to care for the children on her own. When Nagayama was five years old, his mother abandoned him and his siblings in an act of exhaustion and desperation, returning to her hometown in the hopes that their father would take responsibility for his children. He did not. Seven months later, social services responded to a call from a neighbor, and found the children malnourished and freezing at home, attempting to fend for themselves. They were taken to their mother, and placed under child and family services monitoring and care.
In school, Nagayama was tormented by his classmates for the abject state of his clothes and personal hygiene, and his inability to speak their dialect. In 1962, he discovered his father had died alone in the street through a photograph on the front page of the newspaper. Events like these are among those traced and tied together to produce a semblance of a narrative from a lifetime of struggle. At age 15, Nagayama left school and went to find work in Tokyo’s growing industrial landscape. He worked in a factory by day, and went to school at night, but once again he felt marginalized because of his upbringing—he came from an address-less town, called a prison by association with its one landmark, and not only found himself ridiculed by peers, but also too ashamed to apply for any jobs that asked for official documents. He gave up work and school and made several attempts to end his life. Such an accumulation of traumatic details seems too much to bear, and to enumerate them like this feels grotesque. And yet these details do amount to something greater than the sum of their parts. They build to a remarkable spark of political consciousness ignited in prison, and to a legacy of solidarity and generosity born out of unspeakable pain.
A lonely, rambling Nagayama developed a habit of sneaking onto an American military base, where he stole the gun that would become his murder weapon. He took it thinking he could use it as protection, or even sell it, if necessary—but not with the intention of using it. The story goes that one day Nagayama wanted to see the brilliant blue pool in Tokyo’s Prince Hotel. He sneaks in unnoticed, but then finds himself caught in the middle of a guard’s chase of someone else, and is detained by accident. He breaks free, panics, shoots the guard, and flees. In the following 16 days, filled with fear and paranoia, he kills three more people—another guard, and two taxi drivers. Eventually, he turns himself in.
Nagayama Norio’s original death sentence was successfully appealed, and reduced to life imprisonment, on the grounds that: 1) the state had failed in its duty to protect him as a child; and 2) though he was 19 when he committed his crimes, his mental age, stunted by a life of suffering and isolation, was much younger. In prison, Nagayama began to read theories of poverty, structural violence, and inequality, and to reflect on his own circumstances. And he began to write; his journal was edited and turned into his first best-selling novel in 1971. His attorney, Ohtani Kyoko, writes that despite reaching the conclusion that his actions were in part a function of the “poverty and ignorance” that marked his life, Nagayama had no desire to be an object of pity. These circumstances helped to explain his actions, but did not keep him from feeling extreme remorse, or taking full responsibility for what he had done. Rather, he hoped to be seen as an example of what happens at the extremes of neglect, when a life is pushed so far to the margins that existing normally is no longer fully feasible. He wanted to use his voice to advocate for revolutionary action to construct a more just world without such marginalization and exclusion. He became overcome with guilt at the thought of the suffering he caused his victims' families, especially the now-fatherless children, and arranged for the profits of his books to be sent to them.
In 1990, Nagayama’s case was revisited, and he was re-sentenced to death—a punishment that rendered him unable to continue sending his writing out into the world, or receive visitors, or even know the date he was meant to die. He spent seven years wondering if each day would be that day. His dreams of helping to create alternative schools for working youth began to fade. Then, six months before his death in 1997, Nagayama read a story written by Japanese journalists stationed in Lima to cover an ongoing hostage crisis at the Japanese Embassy there. The story was about MNNATSOP, which in Spanish stands for the National Movement of Organized Working Children and Teens of Peru. Nagayama was profoundly moved by their struggles for recognition as workers and safer working conditions. He connected immediately to the stories of young people who needed to work to support their families. He identified as a “working kid.” And so before his execution, he specified that the future profits from his writings should go to these young workers fighting for their rights, and their dignity.
Esther Díaz, INFANT’s director since its founding, was working with MNNATSOP when a Japanese delegation first came to Perú to connect with the youth Nagayama hoped to support. MNNATSOP, the working children’s movement, was in the process of founding INFANT, the working children’s training institute. With the money from the Nagayama Norio fund, MNNATSOP and INFANT bought a house to use for offices, gatherings, and even a place to stay for youth passing through Lima from all over the country. The fund has also provided scholarships for working youth throughout Perú. In acknowledgement, MNNATSOP decided that INFANT should carry Nagayama Norio's name.
It is in this house, the second floor of which is INFANT’s office, that Esther shares her memories with me. In her office, Nagayama Norio’s pen sits behind glass, and his photo hangs on a wall. These objects seem infused with a certain kind of power, constant reminders of the contingencies that bring disparate lives together; of the possibility of generating new words and relationships from deep despair; and of what we might make of the arbitrariness of the circumstances into which we are born.