Tuesday, March 7, 2000; 2:29 a.m. EST

Japan Riveted by Mom's Murder Trial
By Scott Stoddard
Associated Press Writer

TOKYO With husbands working until late and rarely any jobs of their own, Japanese women have long centered their social lives on the tight, competitive circle of mothers at their children's schools.

That lifestyle, however, is under increasing scrutiny after a Tokyo woman was accused of using her scarf to strangle a 2-year-old girl in a public restroom late last year after an intense dispute with the victim's mother.

Mitsuko Yamada pleaded guilty Monday on the first day of her trial. The crime carries a maximum penalty of death. Despite the guilty plea, the three-judge panel will continue to hear testimony to help them decide a penalty. There are no jury trials in Japan.

Yamada's defense attorney said she confessed to killing Haruna Wakayama last November after taking the little girl from a nursery school playground in central Tokyo.

"I apologize for killing Haruna, who was totally innocent, and causing sorrow for her family members," Yamada, a former nurse, was quoted as saying by Kyodo News agency. "I should not be allowed to live."

The case has been closely watched in Japan, where it has raised questions about the isolated lives of Japanese housewives. More than 800 people waited in line to draw lots for 58 spectator's seats in the Tokyo District Court.

Yamada, 36, told the court she hated Haruna's mother because the woman seemed to intentionally avoid her and to ostracize Yamada's 5-year-old son, media reports said. Both women had 2-year-old daughters and 5-year-old sons who attended the same kindergarten.

Initial reports speculated that Yamada planned the killing because Haruna had been accepted by a prestigious kindergarten while her own daughter was turned down. Yamada later denied that was the motive.

Still, Yamada's testimony had many searching for an answer.

"I can't believe someone would kill a child. I don't know what mothers are thinking these days," said Isao Sasaki, a 62-year-old chef who lives in Tokyo.

With Japanese husbands working long hours, many wives lead cloistered lives at home, focusing on their kids and measuring their own worth by the children's success in competitive entrance exams.

"The deranged mental state that led to the murder was created in the daily relationships among housewives living through their children," the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper said in an analysis on the case.

"The challenge for the trial is to penetrate the deeply troubled society of mothers that even produced the motive to kill."

Others say the slaying underlines how isolated women's lives become when their husbands are workaholics. Although some married women work, their careers are almost always subordinate to those of their husbands.

Prosecutors reportedly told the court Monday that Yamada said she had tried to talk about her frustrations with her husband but he was too busy to be supportive.

They quoted Yamada as telling police she grew increasingly upset over "psychological clashes" with Haruna's mother and believed that by killing Haruna she no longer would have to socialize with the woman.

In addition to murder, Yamada was charged with abandoning a body, punishable by up to three years in prison.

Yamada is suspected of stuffing Haruna's body in a bag, then boarding a train to Shizuoka prefecture, or state, 95 miles west of Tokyo, where her parents live.

She allegedly dug a hole in the backyard of her parents' home and buried the body. Three days later, she turned herself into the police.

Copyright 2000 Associated Press.