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Two Cultures Collide Over Act of Despair : Mother Facing Charges in Ceremonial Drowning

February 24, 1985|MAURA DOLAN, Times Staff Writer

"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.

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