Cast your mind back through time and space, to a distant place called late-nineties cyberspace. This strange world was digital Wild West of eyesore websites and dodgy AOL chat rooms. Compared to the polished web of today, it was a low-bandwidth nightmare, and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to it.
Case in point: pop-ups. If you’re in your thirties or above now, then you probably still have nightmares about opening an innocent link only to see your screen flooded with dozens of unwanted insurance ads and Viagra promos. What do pop-ups have to do with crime, you ask?
Well, today I want to tell you the story about how a disturbing urban legend from the early internet spilled over into reality, with deadly consequences, before being reabsorbed into the darker side of digital culture in some pretty troubling ways.
We begin in Japan, in 1999. A young boy is told by his school friend about a creepy legend: a website which spawns a cursed pop-up with a cryptic message. Being the curious sort, the boy goes looking for the page when he gets home after school.
He doesn’t have any luck finding it, so he moves on to whatever young guys do when they have a computer in their bedroom… He’s barely typed the letters P O R N H into his search bar, when suddenly the fabled popup appears on his screen. It’s an image of a red door, with the words “Do you like…” written on it. What’s more, a creepy child’s voice reads the message out through the computer speakers.
The kid is understandably freaked out, so he closes the browser window, but after a second, it’s back. This time the message is longer, and even longer the next times he tries to get rid of it:
Do you like…
Do you like the…
Do you like the red…
Do you like the red room?
The last time it’s accompanied by a webpage with a list on names. The boy’s school friend is at the top, and just as he realizes this, he feels something creep up and grab him from behind. It’s said that both boys took their own lives, but not before painting their bedrooms with their own blood…
Okay, I know you came here for true crime, not ghost hunting, so I’ll just come right out and explain: what I’ve just described is the plot to an interactive Flash animation from around 22 years ago. If you make it to the end of the story, the popup itself appears on your computer, with one of those obnoxious scary-faced jump scares a couple seconds after.
Standard creepy website fare. But the reason this particular Flash animation has maintained its notoriety to this day, is because of a very dark real-world connection, which will become clear in a few minutes. First, let me tell you another story…
This one takes place on June 1st 2004, in a place called Sasebo, Nagasaki. Two girls are alone in a classroom at Okubo Elementary School during lunch break. One of them, Satomi Mitarai, is lying on the floor, her arms and throat cut open. The other, who would later be referred to in the media as simply Girl A, is standing over her with a box cutter, her clothes spattered with blood.
After lunch break ended, Girl A simply returned back to class as if nothing happened. The teacher realized she had one kid missing, and one looking she walked through the set of a Tarantino film. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes level of intuition to know something was amiss, so she went looking. Satomi’s body was found lying in the empty classroom. She was just 12 years old. Her killer, only 11.
The story shocked the entire nation, as it should probably have shocked you just a moment ago (unless you’re completely jaded). People were looking for answers as to what could have driven an elementary school kid to do something so awful. We all know kids can be mean, but this was a few steps further than some stolen lunch money.
Girl A confessed to the murder as soon as the police arrived at the school, never making any attempts to hide what she had done. In fact, she was pretty distressed about it. She kept telling them “I’ve done a bad thing. I’m sorry. I’m sorry”.
She said it in Japanese, obviously, but I’m not gonna try to pronounce the original quotes. As for a motive, Girl A said that Satomi had cyberbullied her, calling her overweight, and a goody-two-shoes (a title which she definitely lost forever that day).
Her identity was hidden as per Japanese law, and likewise she wasn’t eligible for criminal proceedings on account of her age. Instead, she was sentenced at family court to two years of institutionalization at a mental health facility in Tochigi Prefecture, where she was diagnosed with Aspergers and various social maladjustments. Her stay was eventually extended by another two years.
If you’re waiting for another little twist, I’m sorry to tell you that this story is 100% true. And truth is about to become stranger than fiction, because while digging around for more information on what drove Girl A to murder, the investigators stumbled across some things in her computer which would cement the Sasebo Slashing’s status as an internet legend for years to come…
See, Girl A held a morbid fascination with some of the more unsavory content floating around online in those days. She had her own homemade page where she posted links to various creepy videos, gruesome art, and violent urban legends.
Judging by the fan-fiction links, she was also clearly a big fan of the Japanese film Battle Royale, and the book upon which it was based. In case you’re not aware, Battle Royale is about a bunch of school kids who are taken to a remote location and forced to battle to the death. Less Fortnite, more Lord of the Flies.
But perhaps most significantly, the entire site’s aesthetic was based around a certain Japanese Flash animation with which you’re already familiar: The Red Room. She had the page itself saved in her bookmarks too, and as soon as this little detail found its way into the news stream, it was latched onto by superstitious folks, social conservatives, and cynical tech-skeptics alike.
The story ballooned into its own little pocket of online culture in Japan, eventually reaching message boards overseas. Fans of Girl A (yes, she has a fanbase — more on that later) even took to uploading mirror sites for her personal page after the original went down.
See, when a child killer is obsessed with an animation about a curse which creates child killers, you can bet plenty of people are going to take that as hard evidence that something spooky is afoot. That’s why you’ll often find this story online shorn of all its context; many sites don’t even mention that the original was just some cheesy Flash animation.
You’re probably aware Japan is no stranger to stories of cursed media. In fact, the ghosts there are some of the most tech savvy in the world. No sooner has a new medium been invented than a demonic schoolgirl finds a way to crawl through it.
Although, as is often the case with these things, the real terror lies behind the fiction. If we put aside the hysteria over curses for a second, we have to seriously ask what real trauma or troubles drove that little girl to commit such a horrific crime.
One Japanese psychologist, who goes by the name Akio Mori, was adamant he could explain the whole thing. So what did he diagnose Girl A with? Schizophrenia? PTSD? Nope: Game Brain.
Never heard of Game Brain? Not to worry, it’s basically nonsense. See, Mori-san is of those tech-skeptics I mentioned earlier on. His theory was that playing video games can cause real, material damage to the human brain. After the case of Girl A, he extended the theory to include internet usage.
Now, in case you haven’t realized, the internet is pretty popular nowadays. If Mori’s theory were true, then surely everyone from your Facebook-obsessed aunt to your neighbor’s iPad-addicted kids should currently be engaged in a Purge-like battle to the death. Let me check out the window — nope, everything seems fine.
That’s not to say that the internet had a positive effect on this troubled young girl by any means. If you need any proof of how twisted internet subcultures can be, consider what happened to Girl A in the months following her arrest. Some users of the site 2channel (a precursor to the far more infamous 4chan) decided that this 11-year-old murderer should be given the meme treatment.
They created anime-style depictions of Girl A, based on a photograph of her wearing a Nevada University hoodie. Nevada-tan, as the cartoon version of Girl A became known, was typically drawn with a box cutter, hoodie, and a crazy grin. It didn’t just stop with that; there were replicas of her artwork, fan songs, even cosplay. If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable already, just imagine a grown man or woman behind their computer, whipping up that content in tribute to an 11 year old child…
But it wasn’t just online weirdos interested in the case — the government were watching very closely too. There was a major discussion on lowering the age of criminal responsibility so that culprits like Girl A would be eligible to face actual criminal proceedings in the future.
That sort of change was far from unprecedented. In fact, it had already been lowered from 16 to 14 in 1997, after a 14 year old boy in the city of Kobe decapitated his 12 year old schoolmate, and bludgeoned an 11 year old girl to death. Which begs the question, what the hell Japan?
If you’re looking for an explanation as to why so many kids are committing bloody murders in the Land of the Rising Sun, plain old psychological issues are a pretty solid start. These things can often be taboo in conservative cultures. There’s a tendency to try to hide or ignore the signs, rather than tackle them head on. Of course, that just compounds the problems rather than fixes them, leading to some horrible crimes and a famously high rate of suicide in young and old.
Still, don’t let the jabbering of medical professionals get in your way if you’d rather believe in cursed websites, or the evil of the internet. And the next time you see that little +1 notification ping up on AdBlock, be thankful that maybe — maybe — it just saved your life.
So that brings us to the end of today’s mini episode. Whatever happened to Girl A in the end, I hope she was able to shake off the attention of the creeps who turned the lowest moment of her life into a meme, for the LOLZ. [say with contempt]
In closing, I’ll leave you with the thought that perhaps it’s counterintuitively more comfortable to believe in curses and possession, or the corrupting influence of media like video games or websites, rather than face up to what normal, flesh-and-blood humans beings are capable of, given the right conditions. Even those who we imagine to be the most innocent.