November 13, 1990, was a typical autumn day in Japan. Fusako Sano was watching a baseball game at school. She was a nine-year-old girl who was born in Sanjo and was in the fourth grade. Sometime and somewhere between the game and when she should have arrived home, Fusako Sano disappeared. For nine years and two months, Fusako Sano was a captive until police discovered the crime on January 28, 2000.
A significant police hunt began as soon as Fusako Sano went missing on November 13, 1990. The search failed to uncover any leads. For a period, police even considered the theory that North Korean intelligence operatives kidnapped her. As far fetched as that sounds, it happened to at least 17 Japanese citizens during the 70s and 80s.
In reality, Nobuyuki Satō, a 28-year-old disturbed and unemployed Japanese man, kidnapped her. He forced her in his car and drove her to his apartment in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, where he held her for more than nine years. He lived only 55 kilometers from her home and 200 meters from a police substation.
Her Discovery By The Police
In January 1996, Nobuyuki Satō’s mother contacted a public health center in Kashiwazaki to report her son’s strange and violent behavior. Four years later, she called on January 12 and January 19, 2000, asking for a home visit. When social workers visited on January 28, they called the police on Nobuyuki Satō after he began acting out.
When they arrived, Sano identified herself to the officers. Now 19 years old, she 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.”
She was relatively healthy when the police found her, especially when compared to victims of similar crimes. Her muscles had atrophied from not getting enough exercise, and she was dehydrated. Because she hadn’t been outside in nine years, she hadn’t grown up and still had the mental ability of a nine-year-old. She also had jaundice from the lack of sun and PTSD from being held captive.
Fusako Sano’s Missing Years
According to Sano, she was initially terrified after her abduction but eventually resigned herself to her fate. Satō tied her up and forced her to videotape horse races on the TV. If she didn’t comply, he’d use a stun gun or threaten her with beatings and a knife.
Fusako Sano shared his clothes, and he provided her with three meals every day. She ate microwavable food or dishes cooked by his mother, who was living downstairs the entire time. Despite being so close, his mother supposedly didn’t have contact with Sano. Anytime she would try to come upstairs, her son would become violent and drive her back down. Allegedly, she must have known something was going on as she had purchased feminine products for Sano.
She spent her time listening to the radio until her final year when he allowed her to watch TV independently. There was no bathroom upstairs, so she rarely bathed and presumably used buckets to go to the bathroom. He also gave Sano haircuts.
Nobuyuki Satō never locked the door, but Sano reportedly was too scared to escape, eventually losing the energy and resigning herself to captivity.
After Fusako Sano was Freed
After a stay in the hospital, Sano reunited with her family. Her mother didn’t even recognize her, as it had been so long.
Over the next couple of years, Sano’s physical health has gotten better. She has had some difficulty adjusting to a life of freedom. Social interactions can be complicated, and she has few friends. She works on her family’s rice paddy and enjoys photographing flowers and football.
Sadly, she underwent another tragedy in 2007 when she witnessed her father drown while swimming in a pond.
The Trial of Nobuyuki Satō
The police immediately placed 37-year-old Nobuyuki Satō in a mental hospital. Less than two weeks later, he has arrested. Prosecutors strategically tried to put every charge possible on him, like the times he shoplifted underwear, attempting to put him in prison for as long as possible.
The defense attempted an insanity plea, but he was found mentally fit. After an almost three year legal battle, the court sentenced Satō to fourteen years in prison. Based on that, he likely got out of prison in 2017.
How the police handled Fusako Sano’s case became controversial in Japan. The state had convicted Satō of violently assaulted another girl a year prior in 1989. His name didn’t appear in the police database through pure negligence, so they never considered him a suspect. If someone had driven by his house, they would have discovered Sano years earlier and saved her a lot of hardship.
After the arrest, Niigata’s Police Chief, Kjo Kobayashi, actually ended up resigning. He was playing mah-jong when the arrest was made and failed to supervise adequately, resulting in many mistakes in the investigation.
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