Yuji Nishizawa loved video games. He was born on 8 September 1970 in Tokyo, Japan and it seemed that his hands had been permanently attached to a controller ever since. His parents probably told him he would get square eyes if he kept spending so long in front of a screen; maybe they also worried that he wasn’t getting enough fresh air and exercise. It turned out that these should have been the least of their concerns. In the end, Yuji spent so many hours playing games, particularly flight simulations, that he couldn’t get the idea of flying a plane out of his head.
On July 23 1999, 503 passengers boarded All Nippon Airways flight 61 at Tokyo International Airport, bound for the Japanese city of Chitose. The manifest included 14 children and 14 crew members. The journey started smoothly, but less than 30 minutes after take-off, 28-year-old Yuji Nishizawa used an 8-inch kitchen knife to threaten a female flight attendant and told her he would kill her if she didn’t let him into the cockpit. She had no choice but to comply. Once inside the cockpit, he forced 34-year-old co-pilot Kazuyuki Koga out of his seat and into the main passenger area of the plane. The armed intruder stabbed Captain Naoyuki Nagashima in the chest and took control of the plane, but before Nagashima died, he managed to send a message to Air Traffic Control (ATC) to let them know the Boeing 747-481D was being hijacked.
Several crew members managed to wrestle Nishizawa out of the pilot’s chair, allowing co-pilot Koga to re-take control. He immediately radioed an update to ATC saying, ‘It’s an emergency. The captain was stabbed. Prepare an ambulance’. He then made an emergency landing at Haneda Airport at 12:14 p.m. where police were waiting to arrest the hijacker. As they took Yuji Nishizawa into custody, he was heard shouting, ‘I want to soar through the air’.
Yuji Nishizawa had spent countless hours on flight simulation games and thought this was an adequate replacement for years of pilot training, truly believing he was capable of flying a sophisticated modern aircraft. It turned out he had been overly optimistic about his abilities and after a bumpy ride including one hair-raising descent to an altitude of just 300 metres, it was astonishing that he hadn’t crashed the plane.
The investigation found that Nishizawa had taken a large dose of antidepressants shortly before the episode and he told police that he wanted to fly the plane under Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge – which has just 52 metres clearance underneath it. He didn’t seem to understand that he had done anything wrong but told the court that he didn’t care if he was sentenced to death. His defence team argued that he wasn’t fully responsible for his actions due to his Asperger’s Syndrome coupled with the effects of the antidepressant drugs. The prosecution, however, were convinced that Nishizawa was rational at the time and killing the pilot was a premeditated part of his plan.
Judge Hisaharu Yasui sentenced the game-obsessed hijacker to life in prison. Captain Nagashima’s family sued the airline, the Japanese state, and Nishizawa’s family, stating that poor security had allowed the incident to take place. Questions were asked about how Yuji had managed to smuggle an 8-inch knife onto a plane, and although it took several years, a settlement was reached in late 2007 for an undisclosed sum. Following the incident, the government tightened security across the country. Sadly, it was too late for Captain Nagashima, and his family must live with the knowledge that his death was entirely preventable. Although even a single death is a tragedy, it is nothing short of miraculous that more lives were not lost.
Intriguingly, Yushi Nishizawa is not the only killer to have been obsessed with video games, although arguably he might have been the first. In 2006, 19-year-old British man Stuart Harling left behind his church altar boy childhood and his burgeoning career in accountancy and stabbed a nurse 72 times in broad daylight. His defence claimed that his obsession with violent computer games had driven him to kill. In 2017, unemployed loner Rocky Rambo Wei Nam Kam used a knife and hatchet to murder an elderly couple at random in Canada after spending up to 14 hours a day playing video games. This formed part of his defence, but the judge didn’t buy it, and he was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years without parole.
Whether or not violent films and video games can influence people to kill is a matter that sparks much debate, but in the Yuji Nishizawa case, it seems clear that his obsession with flight simulation games was pivotal to his decision to take control of Flight 61.