Japan’s Case of the Unlikely Streetwalker


The pair, whose lives would briefly intersect, were from different worlds.

Govinda Prasad Mainali was an illegal immigrant waiting tables in an Indian restaurant here, sending much of his salary home to his family in Nepal.

Yasuko Watanabe was a promising economist earning nearly $100,000 a year by day, but still driven to stand on a street corner and turn four tricks a night.


After the 39-year-old Watanabe was found slain in a seedy one-room apartment in 1997, Mainali was arrested and charged with the crime.

The case has captivated Japan, and not only because of its salacious details. It has exposed two long-overlooked aspects of Japanese society: the notoriously tough judicial treatment of foreigners and the peculiar attitudes toward prostitution.

Mainali, who admits to having had sex with Watanabe but insists he didn’t kill her, was judged not guilty by a lower court that cited a lack of evidence. Nevertheless, authorities refused to let him out of jail while prosecutors appealed, something that Mainali’s lawyers say has never happened to a Japanese.

With no new evidence and no clarification beyond an assertion that there was no doubt about his guilt, an appeals court overturned the ruling in December and sentenced Mainali to life in prison.

Mainali, 33, shivers in the cold solitary-confinement cell where he has been held for nearly four years, unable to see his wife and two young daughters. “I’m innocent. I didn’t do anything wrong,” he recently told visitors.

“It was the murder of the law by the guardians of the law,” said Shinichi Sano, a well-respected journalist and author. His book about the killing, “Tokyo Electric Power Co. Office Lady Murder Case,” has climbed the bestseller list.

Prosecutors and police refused to comment.

Meanwhile, widespread publicity continues to trigger sympathy for the victim’s involvement in prostitution. A seminar last month, “Backstage in the Cinderella Story,” drew about 800 well-heeled participants, some of whom said they had either sold or been tempted to sell their bodies. The urge has been dubbed the “Yasuko Syndrome,” after Watanabe.

Women regularly visit Tokyo’s Maruyamacho area of “love hotels,” which are designed for trysts, to lay fresh purple orchids or pray at a small shrine known unofficially as Yasuko Jizo. It is a stone statue of a woman, her mouth painted with fresh lipstick.

Several women at the “Cinderella” symposium said that, as with Watanabe, money was not behind their urge to offer themselves for sale. The women said they craved something else that’s less clear. Mayumi Watanabe, 29--no relation to Yasuko--said she had felt driven to take money for sex with men she dated, but then felt miserable.

Some observers suggest that many Japanese women have a hard time relating to men because typically onerous working hours and commutes keep fathers largely absent from their families. Moreover, sex here seems to have little context: Though pornography is ubiquitous--nude pictures appear in newspapers openly read on subways--there is no sexual education in schools, and Shinto and Buddhist religions serve more as philosophies than moral compasses.

Single professional women have a particularly tough lot in Japan because they fit into neither the overwhelmingly male professional world nor the traditional world: Those who do work are expected--and prodded--to marry, have children and leave the work force.

Victim Attended Prestigious University

Yasuko Watanabe was born in 1957, grew up in a well-to-do Tokyo neighborhood and attended prestigious Keio University, where she majored in economics. Her father died of cancer while she was in college. She felt a strong obligation to support her mother and sister.

Driven and goal-oriented, she followed in her father’s footsteps to Tokyo Electric, one of only nine women hired in 1980 and among the few on the company’s “career track.” Nevertheless, like all women in the firm, she was required to wear a uniform, although the men were not. She detested making tea for her male colleagues and bosses, as female employees in Japan--no matter how successful--typically are required to do.

Her downfall seemed to have been triggered by jealousy over a female rival’s selection to attend a program at Harvard University, author Sano said.

When the utility lent Watanabe temporarily to a quasi-governmental think tank a few years later, she considered it a demotion. She wanted a more prestigious appointment in the Foreign Ministry or Ministry of International Trade and Industry, Sano wrote. Nevertheless, a paper of hers on structural changes in household economics won her acclaim within the institute.

Her professional success didn’t deter her from doubling at night in a hostess bar, where men pay high prices for women to flirt with and pour drinks for them.

Ultimately she became a prostitute. At 5 each night, she would take the subway from work to Tokyo’s Shibuya section, where she commanded about $250 a trick at a high-class agency, taking a $150 cut, Sano said.

By then she was 32, considered too old to command higher prices. According to a man who patronized her regularly for two years, Sano wrote, she would give a discourse on Japan’s economy and energy needs and drink three cans of beer before consummating the transaction. She told him how proud she was to work at Tokyo Electric--but also confided that she was driven to prostitution after being dumped by a married colleague.

She kept a detailed journal of the men with whom she had sex--at least 88--including dates, times and fees. When her body was found, police discovered 28 condoms--four for each day of the week--neatly tucked into her purse.

Watanabe also dipped into the lowest form of prostitution. Even in driving rain and freezing cold, she methodically drove herself to fulfill her self-imposed quota of four customers a night. She would stand on the street and solicit anyone for as little as $20--even foreign workers, who are viewed as second-class citizens in homogenous Japan. “Let’s have some fun,” she would say.

That is how she came to know Mainali.

The restaurant worker lived in an apartment near her regular corner with four other Nepalese men. Next door was the vacant apartment where Watanabe’s strangled body was found March 19, 1997. Police determined that a condom found in the toilet contained Mainali’s sperm. The point of contention was how old the sperm was: Police estimated that she was killed March 8, but Mainali claims he last had sex with her at the end of February.

Mainali, a member of an upper-crust family with extensive land holdings in Nepal, had come to Japan in 1994 on a three-month tourist visa. His goal: to learn enough Japanese to secure a relatively high-paying job as a tour guide when he returned home.

Like thousands of other foreigners who come to Japan in search of higher salaries, he overstayed his visa. His job at an Indian restaurant enabled him to send cash to his wife and begin construction on a house in Katmandu, the Nepalese capital.

Soon after Watanabe’s body was found, police questioned area residents. Mainali went to authorities to tell them he didn’t do it, even though he knew it might mean he would be deported because his visa had expired. They took him into custody, charging him with working illegally but focusing their questions on the killing. The alleged motive: robbery.

Mainali initially denied having known Watanabe, making police more suspicious. Eventually, he acknowledged having had sex with her three times.

Mainali’s attorneys claim that two officers grilled their client from morning until night for weeks and, to force a confession, often kicked and punched him and pulled his hair. He refused to confess and, nearly two months later, on the day the court ruled him guilty on the visa issue, police officially arrested Mainali for murder rather than deporting him.

But their evidence was flimsy at best. Another patron who had had sex with Watanabe the evening police believe she was killed said he had paid her about $400. The money allegedly was missing when police found her body in the apartment, where the door, at least at one point, had been wide open.

Police also interrogated a Nepalese roommate of Mainali’s who was also in Japan illegally and who ultimately told them that Mainali had paid him back a loan of $1,500 at about the time of the killing--about $400 more than Mainali could have had available, prosecutors claim. Mainali’s attorneys maintain that the roommate testified falsely under pressure from police. The man was subsequently deported to Nepal.

Reported Police Tactics Cited in U.S. Study

Coercive tactics to solicit confessions reportedly are common: A 1999 State Department study of human rights practices in Japan cited reports by rights organizations, prisoner groups and the Japanese bar association that police sometimes kick, beat and intimidate prisoners and witnesses--both Japanese and foreign--to obtain confessions.

A Tokyo district court ruled Mainali not guilty on April 14, 2000. The verdict was unusual: About 99% of cases in Japan result in guilty verdicts because so many are based on confessions.

Mainali’s attorneys say the appeals court refused to admit tests indicating that the traces of Mainali’s sperm were old, which the lawyers offered to buttress the findings of the lower court. A pubic hair of Mainali’s that was found near the corpse was admitted as evidence, but another that belonged to someone else was not. Since no one cleaned the apartment, whatever was left there “stayed forever,” Katsuhiko Tsukuda, an attorney for Mainali, said in an interview. Testimony that witnesses saw several used condoms outside the window also was not admitted.

Foreigners working illegally in Japan have few rights in the courts. Several foreign hostesses allegedly drugged and raped by the man now suspected of killing British hostess Lucie Blackman last year did not initially report the attacks to police because they were working illegally on tourist visas.

It’s even worse for those who are from developing countries. “The immigration office has the 100% right to decide their destiny,” Tsukuda said.

Foreigners who overstay their visas won’t so much as walk against a traffic light, he said. “If you’re from the Third World, it’s enough to be questioned and forced to produce a registration card with a fingerprint that proves you’re legal.”

Police do not have interpreters for many languages. Mainali eventually was provided an Indian interpreter--who speaks Hindi, not Nepali.

Mainali’s attorneys know of only one other case in which a defendant found not guilty had to remain in jail while the prosecution appealed the judgment; it involved a Chinese worker.

The appellate court’s verdict “is a 100% false judgment,” said Tsukuda, who is partially paid by the government, though the compensation does not nearly cover the time he and four other lawyers have spent on the case. “The appeals court basically said, ‘If there’s doubt, we should punish him.’ ”

Nepalese officials have been relatively quiet about the judgment. Japan is by far their nation’s largest aid donor, and diplomats say the Nepalese are not in a position to comment. Still, the officials at times attended Mainali’s trial and have visited him in prison.

Some Japanese have come to Mainali’s assistance and formed a support group. Toyohisa Azuma, a tour guide who lived in Nepal for six years and has traveled to the country about 100 times, visits Mainali regularly and has twice paid for round-trip airline tickets for Mainali’s brother-in-law, Bharat Mahat, to visit from Nepal.

Seen in the Tokyo Detention Center on a recent wintry day, Mainali seemed upbeat. A court official sitting in the visitors room monitored every word and took notes. Prisoners are forbidden to speak anything but Japanese to visitors, although occasionally Mainali slipped into Nepali with his brother-in-law during the visit.

Mainali brought along English and Japanese notebooks, which he studies to pass the time and help him communicate with attorneys. Prison life improved after the not guilty verdict; each week, he can go outside three times and take two showers.

“I’m OK here, except I’m cold,” he said. “I feel lonely.”

He asked his brother-in-law to buy him milk, boxed lunches and fruit from the prison store. Asked what he would say to Americans, he replied: “Please help me. I’m innocent. Please write me letters.”

Mainali will have another shot at freedom when the five-justice Supreme Court, to which his attorneys are appealing, considers the case. But the hearing will be closed to Mainali, lawyers and the public. And it won’t happen for at least two years.


Makiko Inoue of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.