It is a common-or-garden observation that there are elements of some cultures that are impenetrable to outsiders. Attitudes toward death are on the list of unknowable mindsets in other countries and religions.
This fact lends a certain frisson to a very good true-crime investigation airing this week. The Missing Tourist (Thursday, CBC, 9 p.m. on Firsthand) is a mystery inside a mystery precisely because some elements of Japanese culture are baffling to us.
The essential facts are easy to relay. On Oct. 17, 2014, Atsumi Yoshikubo arrived in Yellowknife from Japan – alone – and checked into a hotel. In the ensuing few days, the 45-year-old woman visited a gift shop, bought souvenirs and went to a tourist information office, where she asked about viewing the aurora borealis. There was nothing remarkable about that. Many Japanese tourists visit the Yellowknife area to see the Northern Lights, but not usually in October. Five days after she arrived, she was seen walking along the main road heading out of Yellowknife. She was wearing a pink parka – highly visible. But she was never seen again.
The documentary opens with the puzzled perspective of locals in Yellowknife. Reporters who covered the case said it was highly peculiar from the beginning. The missing woman was alone but had behaved as a normal tourist.
Under the big pink parka, Yoshikubo was just 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 100 pounds. Locals who saw her on her hike out of town felt guilty that they hadn't stopped to ask if she needed help or directions. In fact, the whole town felt pangs of guilt. If there was foul play, then somebody could have saved her if they'd paid attention. Adding to the fraught atmosphere was the fact that there was huge interest in Japan in the case of the missing tourist.
There was a search with all the usual resources engaged to find the woman. No trace was found. After nine days, the RCMP called off the search. A news release said the Mounties had determined that Yoshikubo went into the wilderness with the intention of not being found. It was a cryptic statement, and little else was said. Even today an RCMP officer declares, "My role is not to answer to the media. It's to answer to the family."
The "family" was, however, not entirely convinced by the official explanation. It was discovered that Yoshikubo had sent a note saying she was contemplating suicide. But her brother was utterly baffled by this. As he's seen asserting in the documentary, it puzzled him that his sister had bought souvenirs. And, if she wanted to die in a forest, well, there are forests in Japan.
The program then takes us to Japan, where the mystery will deepen for many viewers. Yoshikubo was a doctor – an educated and apparently successful person. Former colleagues remember her as charming and beautiful. Then the picture starts to change. The woman drifted away from home, couldn't seem to settle at a hospital or clinic and lived almost anonymously in the sprawling suburbs of Tokyo. At the time she left for Yellowknife, her family had no idea where she lived or worked.
Some experts interviewed in Japan explain a crucial aspect of the case. There is a long-standing pattern of people going quietly into a forest in Japan and just disappearing. It is considered a quiet, honourable suicide. There is a high suicide rate in Japan – and no moral judgment on it, we're told.
Yet, as the background to the case of the missing woman became clear to people in Yellowknife, many weren't satisfied or put at ease by the new information. Many remain deeply disturbed. Guilt persists. If only, they say. If only there had been a bit more effort when Yoshikubo went missing, she might have been found before she died. Even if she was determined to die, perhaps last-minute intervention could have stopped her. If only.
It remains unclear exactly how the missing tourist died. And her motives and actions remain unclear to locals in Yellowknife. That's because there is a huge gulf between the Japanese approach to death and suicide and the instincts of most people in Yellowknife.
Made by Geoff Morrison, The Missing Tourist is a truly intriguing story. It is steeped in what seems the contemporary true-crime narrative. Yet it asks, in a philosophical way, was there a crime at all?