Fusako Sano (佐野 房子 Sano Fusako?, also known by the pseudonym Sachiko Yamada) (born 1981) is a Japanese woman who was kidnapped at age nine by Nobuyuki Satō (佐藤 宣行 Satō Nobuyuki), and held in captivity for nine years and two months from November 13, 1990 to January 28, 2000. In Japan, the case is also known as the Niigata girl confinement incident (新潟少女監禁事件 Niigata shōjo kankin jiken?).
Fusako Sano, then a fourth grade elementary school girl, disappeared on November 13, 1990 at age nine after watching a school baseball game in her home town of Sanjō, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. A huge police search failed to find the missing girl. Police even considered the possibility that she had been kidnapped by North Korean intelligence operatives.
She had been kidnapped by Nobuyuki Satō, then a 28-year-old mentally disturbed unemployed Japanese man, who forced her into his car, and subsequently held her in the upstairs floor of his apartment in a residential area of Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture for 9 years and two months. The house is only 200 meters from a kōban (police substation), and 55 kilometers from the location where she was kidnapped.
The missing years
While Sano was initially scared, according to her own statements, she eventually just gave up and accepted her fate. Allegedly, the kidnapper kept her tied up for several months, and used a stun gun for punishments if she did not videotape the horse racing on TV. Sano was also threatened with a knife and beatings. Her kidnapper shared his men's clothes with her and gave her food three times per day, either instant food or meals cooked by his mother, who lived downstairs in the house. He also cut Sano's hair. Since there was no bath or toilet upstairs where Sano was confined, she was only able to take a bath infrequently, when permitted by her captor.
She spent most of her time in captivity listening to radio, and reportedly was allowed to watch TV only in the last year of her ordeal. While the door was never locked, Sano did not take a step outside for nine years. She later told the police: "I was too scared to escape and eventually lost the energy to escape."
Satō's mother lived downstairs and apparently had no contact with her son's captive, since he became very violent whenever she tried to go upstairs. However, police believe the mother must have had some knowledge of Ms. Sano's presence; for example, it was alleged that she purchased feminine hygiene products for the victim.
The mother of Nobuyuki Satō, then 73 years old, consulted the Kashiwazaki public health center in January 1996, because her son had been acting strangely and was violent to her. She called again on January 12, 2000, and again on January 19, requesting a visit to her home. Officials finally visited the home on Friday, January 28, 2000. Subsequently, Satō caused a disturbance that resulted in police being called to the scene. On this occasion, Sano, by then 19 years old, approached the officers and identified herself. She reportedly said:
- "I was abducted near the school by a man who forced me into a car. [...] For nine years, I did not take a step out of the house. Today, I went out for the first time."
Upon her rescue Sano was found to be healthy, although extremely thin and weak due to lack of exercise: she could barely walk. She was also dehydrated. Due to the lack of exposure to sunlight, she also had a very light skin tone and suffered from jaundice. While her body was that of a 19-year-old woman, mentally she acted like a child. She also suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder.
Soon after her release, Sano was reunited with her family. Her mother did not initially recognize her, since she had last seen her at age 9.
The local newspaper "Echigo Times" (越後タイムス) compared the incident to the "Yotsuya ghost story," based on the address of Satō.
In the years following her release, Sano's physical health improved, and she now helps out in her family's rice paddy. As a result of her lack of normal social interactions during her captivity, she still has difficulties adjusting to normal life, has very few friends, and likes to take walks alone. She enjoys digital photography, especially of flowers, and obtained a driver's license. Neighbors comment that she is a fan of the local J. League Football (soccer) team Albirex Niigata, and goes to some of their games.
The Sano family refuses to comment on her ordeal.
In 2007, a new tragedy was added to her family when her father drowned in her presence in a pond where the two went for fun.
Nobuyuki Satō, then 37 years old, was hospitalized immediately on January 28, 2000, as mentally unstable. On February 10, 2000, his legal status was changed from suspect to criminal, and he was arrested on February 11, 2000.
The Niigata court opened his trial on May 23, 2000. In the proceedings, the prosecutors acted very carefully to avoid further damage to Sano's mental health. The prosecution's case included even minor charges against Satō (for example, shoplifting of women's underwear) with the goal of putting him in jail for as long as possible. Following a defense claim of criminal insanity, on September 6, 2001, psychiatrists found Satō to be mentally fit to face the charges, and he subsequently admitted the main charges. In the first instance, on January 22, 2002, the Niigata District court sentenced him to 14 years out of a maximum of 15 years.
The defense appealed on January 24, 2002, and the trial moved to the Tokyo High Court. On October 12, 2002, the Tokyo High Court judge Toshio Yamada (山田 利夫 Yamada Toshio) sentenced Satō to 11 years, reducing the initial sentence. Both the prosecution and the defense appealed on December 24, 2002, and the case moved to the Supreme Court of Japan on December 10, 2002. On July 10, 2003, the Supreme Court judge Takehisa Fukazawa (深沢 武久 Fukazawa Takehisa) accepted the prosecution's arguments, with the result that Satō is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence.
Criticism of the police
After the discovery and rescue of Sano, the police in Japan were much criticized. Satō was already known to police for inflicting violence against another girl on June 13, 1989, for which he was convicted on September 19, 1989. However, his name somehow disappeared from the list of criminals, and he was not considered a suspect in the abduction of Sano in 1990. Also, at the time of Sano's rescue, Niigata Prefectural Police chief, Koji Kobayashi, did not show up to the police station to supervise the situation, but spent his evening playing mah-jong with the head of the Regional Police Bureaus. Due to this, and subsequent errors by the police, Kobayashi resigned on February 26, 2000, and the head of the Regional Police Bureaus resigned on February 29, 2000.
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