Two Cultures Collide Over Act of Despair : Mother Facing Charges in Ceremonial Drowning
“I like the sea. I like the Santa Monica sea . . .
When I lose my way, it comes to meet me.
And when I have something sad,
it comes to meet me.
The sea will hold me tight.
And it helps me forget my sorrow.” --From a poem by Fumiko Kimura,
written in the Los Angeles County Jail.
On a cold, sunny afternoon late last month, Fumiko Kimura, 32, walked slowly across the beach in Santa Monica, heading toward the ocean with her infant daughter in her arms. Her 4-year-old son ran before her, laughing and stopping occasionally to dip his hand into the sand and let it fall through his fingers.
At the water’s edge, Kimura lifted both children, then waded in until she was shoulder deep. With a child in each arm, she lay face down, swallowing mouthful after mouthful of the cold salty water, the faces of her children submerged beside her.
Two college students pulled them out, still clinging together, 15 minutes later. But only the mother survived.
Days later, seated behind a glass panel in the Los Angeles County Jail, she said she had resented her rescue.
“I wanted to be with my children,” she wept.
Kimura, a Japanese immigrant, now faces murder charges. She tried to kill herself with her children Jan. 29, about 10 days after learning that her husband had kept a mistress for three years.
And while the reasons for her desperation were highly personal, the method she chose to resolve it was cultural.
Another Country’s Standards
“This is a situation of what might be considered honor-bound activity in one culture being measured by another country’s legal standards,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Louise Comar, the prosecutor assigned to the case.
Although Kimura has lived in the United States for 14 years, she remained Japanese in her thinking and life style, isolated from everything that did not include her children. Suicide was a central theme in her recent marital troubles, and she was not the only one to consider it. Her husband’s Japanese mistress had been threatening it for days. Her husband threatened it after his wife’s attempt.
In Japan, suicide is considered an honorable way of dying. A mother who kills herself with her children is regarded as disturbed but her act is understood. Children are believed to be a part of the mother, and when she takes their lives with her own, she is killing a part of herself. Called oyako-shinju, parent-child suicide occurs at least once a day in Japan, usually committed by a mother.
Dr. Mamoru Iga, a Japanese-born sociologist at Cal State Northridge, said a mother who killed herself in Japan and left her children behind would be more criticized than the mother who takes them with her.
Although the act is illegal in Japan, a parent who survives it is rarely punished, Iga said.
Dr. Ted J. Tokaji, a Japanese-American psychiatrist who practices in the South Bay, agreed. He said that Japanese nationals have expressed bewilderment to him that Americans seem stunned by Kimura’s action. One woman was horrified that American authorities would even prosecute Kimura, Tokaji said.
Police asked Kimura why she took the children in her suicide attempt.
“She said . . . she did not want to leave them behind,” Santa Monica Police Detective Ray Cooper wrote in his report. “She felt they would be hurt like she was if they were left alive and that she did not want anybody else to get her children. She told me she did not think about the criminal aspect of killing her children.”
Kimura’s husband, Itsuroku, 40, a restaurateur, was surprised when asked if he forgave his wife for killing his children. “Of course,” he replied. He said he was “envious” his wife had such a strong bond with her children that she could hold onto them while she herself was drowning.
“It is a Japanese way of thinking,” he said.
Fumiko Kimura’s behavior--reconstructed from interviews with her family, friends, attorney, a homicide investigator, witnesses at the beach and court records--reveals a woman who seemed to embrace Japanese tradition even more strongly after the birth of her children and who, as a mother, was compulsive in her duties.
In the couple’s Tarzana apartment, both children and parents slept on Japanese mats instead of beds. Shoes were faithfully deposited by the door, never worn inside. Although Kimura speaks English, Japanese was spoken at home.
Did Not Drive
She did not drive, knew nothing of her husband’s finances or business and had no hobbies or close friends outside the family. “Just the children,” her husband said with pride. When he came home from work at night, she often bathed his feet.
With the deaths of the children, another tradition became a part of the Kimura home. Three times a day, meals for the souls of the children are set out on a small, low coffee table that serves as an altar.
On a recent day, two small bowls of noodles sat untouched. A photograph of Kazutaka, the couple’s son, dressed in a little black-and-white kimono, has been placed next to his favorite cars, trucks and paper planes. There is also a photograph of the couple’s daughter, Yuri, wearing a pink dress. Two pink rattles and jars of baby food have been placed beside her picture. Between two small candles is a vase of white carnations.
Itsuroku Kimura said he does not discuss the altar with his wife but he is certain she knows it exists. “She would expect it,” he said.
Fumiko Kimura, one of six children, had a normal childhood although she was prone to self-criticism, her family said. She loved music and sports, studied piano for 10 years and had many friends. She came here in 1971, studying for two years at Glendale Community College.
Itsuroku came here six years ago. He said he had been an artist in Japan and went into the restaurant business because he knew he could never support a family with his painting. He now owns a half-interest in a restaurant in Chatsworth.
The couple met five years ago at a Santa Monica restaurant, where he was a sushi chef and she was a waitress. Both had been divorced; neither had children. After marrying, Fumiko gave up work, became pregnant soon afterward and, in 1980, gave birth to Kazutaka. Yuri, their daughter, was born in July.
Fumiko was a protective mother, obsessed with the children’s safety and care. She had gotten rid of most of the furniture, including her piano, because she was afraid the children might fall and hurt themselves.
She washed her children’s clothes by hand, hanging them to dry on a line strung low on her balcony. She kept a written schedule of each day’s activities, allotting specific times for cleaning, cooking and playing with her son. While nursing her daughter, Fumiko would get up in the middle of the night to eat soup, concerned that she was properly nourishing her baby.
Neighbors in the Tarzana apartment complex said they saw Fumiko with her children often. She would sit on a bench in the playground holding the baby while Kazutaka rode his tricycle around the cement pavement. When they went to the pediatrician’s office, both Fumiko and her son would repeatedly bow their heads in respect to the doctor.
But Yoshiko Higa, 63, Fumiko’s mother, said she noticed her daughter seemed depressed after Yuri’s birth. Higa visited her daughter from June to November.
‘Darkness to Her Face’
“There was a darkness to her face . . . " said Higa. “Her hair was falling out. I thought it was just because of the birth and she would get better.”
About 10 days before the drownings, a Japanese woman in her early 30s contacted Fumiko, identified herself as her husband’s mistress and arranged to visit the Kimura home. When the woman arrived, Itsuroku was also there and the three discussed the affair.
The mistress later told police that Itsuroku had “set her up” in an apartment and visited her three times a week. She said she was breaking off the three-year relationship and decided the best way to do so would be to make Fumiko aware of the situation. The two women subsequently discussed the affair a couple of times on the telephone.
After learning of the mistress, Fumiko began having trouble sleeping. Her husband said she started drinking sake but the Japanese wine seemed to have no effect on her. Finally, she went to a doctor and received sleeping medication. She became unable to nurse and fretted that her daughter was losing weight.
Three days before her suicide attempt, she called her family in Japan and spoke anxiously and irrationally, rambling from one subject to another, her mother said. Her family became alarmed and later called her back. But during the second conversation, she seemed normal.
On the following day, her husband’s mistress sent a messenger to the Kimura home with a note apologizing and offering to take her own life.
When a neighbor visited Fumiko the next day, she found her behavior bizarre. The neighbor later told police that Fumiko repeatedly asked her for the time, although she was wearing a watch, and talked of suicide with her children.
After the neighbor left, Fumiko’s son called her and said his mother was crying. The neighbor called Fumiko back and two women made plans for a drive the next day.
Itsuroku returned from work at 2 a.m. He said his wife bathed his feet before he went to sleep. At breakfast, she told her husband she was going to take Yuri to the pediatrician and would keep her son home from preschool because he had a cold.
“She kissed me and said, ‘Please go and come safely,’ ” her husband recalled.
When she got to the pediatrician’s office, she discovered there would be a wait and she told the receptionist she would return in half an hour.
“She was not in tears but she was talking very, very quickly,” said Suzanne Cuesta, the receptionist. “She had a very thick accent and none of us could really understand much. She mentioned Japan a few times, almost as if she was en route to get tickets to Japan and was running late.”
Fumiko Kimura went to a telephone booth after leaving the doctor’s office and called her family in Japan. She told them she was going to check into a Hilton hotel and arrange travel to Japan. Her sister told her to call the family as soon as she reached the hotel.
“She was very, very upset,” said her mother. “She said, ‘Help me, Help me. I want to go to Japan. I will do anything . . . ' She seemed to be pursued, pushed--something was pushing her.”
The family immediately called Itsuroku.
“They told me Fumiko had called and they said, ‘Catch her right away because there is something strange happening.’ ”
Itsuroku returned to their home and found it empty. He went to the doctor’s office and to the Hilton Hotel in Sherman Oaks but they were not there.
At about 1 p.m., while searching the neighborhood, he found his daughter’s stroller, abandoned near a bus stop under the freeway.
Fumiko had traveled to Santa Monica by bus, a nearly two-hour journey that required two transfers. At 2:10 p.m., a man taking a walk on the beach saw her moving slowly toward the water with her two children. But he continued his walk and no one saw the three enter the surf.
About 10 minutes later, two college students studying on the beach noticed sea gulls circling offshore. Below in the water, the couple saw bright colors they suspected were clothing.
They stopped two joggers, one of whom got on the other’s shoulders to get a better look. He said it looked like a body and the joggers ran for help while the couple waited.
“We didn’t know what to do,” said Kevin Sliva, 18. “Then we saw an arm fly out of the water. We decided we had to do something and we went in. All we could see were the backs floating in a clump, like they were connected or tied together. I carried the baby to the shore and my friend carried the little boy. Then I went back for the mother.”
He said he and his friend began pushing on the mother’s and children’s bellies and cleaning out foam from their mouths. “Their eyes were open and they were staring out into nowhere,” Sliva said.
A small private funeral service was held in Little Tokyo for the children. Fumiko Kimura was not told of it. The children were cremated, their ashes taken back to Japan by Itsuroku’s brother to be buried alongside their ancestors.
Prosecutor Comar said she is uncertain whether the state will seek a prison sentence, despite the severity of the criminal charges. A preliminary hearing to decide whether Kimura should stand trial is scheduled for March 21.
Comar said the case might best be resolved outside the courtroom because “you have someone whose reason for doing something was not malevolence, cruelty, violence or financial gain.”
Kimura’s attorney, Gerald Klausner, said he is preparing to go to trial but would prefer not to put his client through court proceedings. He said he believes psychiatric observation will show that Kimura was not legally sane on the day of the drowning.
Kimura is confined in the psychiatric unit of County Jail, where she is receiving anti-depressants and counseling. She said during a recent visit that she is struggling to find a will to live.
“Living is hard and dying is hard,” said the small, thin woman, her black hair streaked with gray, her voice so soft it was barely audible over the jail house telephone. “I must try to want to live.”
Her husband visits her daily, carefully avoiding mention of the children.
“I don’t want to bring up the reality because I don’t want to add pressure to her,” he said. “I feel I am responsible also, and if she is going to be judged legally, then I feel I must be judged also.”
‘Do You Need Me?’
During his first meeting with her after the drownings, he said, he told her, “ ‘Do you need me? I need you.’ She said, ‘Yes.’ So I told her, ‘We will just leave things as they are and we will live a new way in the future.’ So we speak about our dreams for the future.”
His wife has begun writing him poetry from jail. She writes in pencil in Japanese script about her love for the sea and her love of music.
He said he tries to be hopeful when he is with his wife but he is lonely and troubled. “It is so quiet at home, no sounds of children,” he said. He has not returned to work since the incident because people there continually ask him how he is doing. “I am not fine,” he said, tears in his eyes. “I cannot say I am fine.”
He said he finds comfort at night pasting photographs of his children in a scrapbook and takes medication to sleep. He said he would like to simplify his life, give up the restaurant business, return to painting and move with his wife to Japan to start a new family.
“I would like to start life over with Fumiko and have more children,” he said. “But we will all have a big scar on our hearts.”