Parents Seek Truth of Daughter’s Death in Italy; New Investigation Launched 3 Years On

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Michiko Sakata, left, and her husband Ryuichi, hold a picture of their daughter Masami, in April in Niigata.

The body of a Japanese woman was found in Verona, Italy, in January 2021. Local police at the time suspected no foul play in her death. However, a local court ordered the investigation authorities to revisit the incident this month, citing that there was a need to further investigate the circumstances of the death. Her parents, who have tried to find the reason for their daughter’s death, are now hoping the truth will be revealed.

“We have finally come this far. This is a step forward,” said Ryuichi Sakata, 74 and his wife Michiko, 73, in Nishi Ward, Niigata.

On New Year’s Day in 2021, Michiko checked a computer screen many times. Their daughter, Masami, then 42, who had lived in Italy for more than 20 years, had never failed to send a Happy New Year message to her parents. However, they did not receive any message from her that day. While Michiko sent her daughter a Happy New Year message, no reply came.

Masami’s parents called her phone on Jan. 9, 2021. A female voice answered and told them, “Masami is dead.”

Not able to believe that, they called the Japanese consulate general in Italy and found it was true. Masami had been found hanging in her apartment, dead. Local police concluded that there was no evidence that a crime had been committed and did not conduct an official criminal investigation into the incident.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was difficult for the parents to travel to Italy. While they were preparing to claim their daughter’s body and sort out her belongings in Japan, they were notified by Masami’s male neighbor that she might have been murdered by a person close to her.

Since Masami had been living a full life in Italy, enjoying trekking and other activities, they were suspicious and could not believe that she had committed suicide. They submitted a document in April that year to the local prosecutors’ office, asking them to conduct an official investigation into the death. They were told at the end of that month that the prosecutors would launch an investigation into the incident.

According to a lawyer acting on behalf of the parents, the investigation authorities in Italy notified them that the death was not a homicide in June 2023, more than two years after the body was found. The parents were not convinced.

In Italy, a judge examines a request filed by a prosecutor regarding a criminal case and decides whether to start a trial, conduct a reinvestigation or take other steps. The examination procedure is performed behind closed doors, with the prosecutors, suspect’s side and victim’s side present. The parents claimed during the procedure that their daughter had been murdered. They asked a local forensic pathologist to examine the body who submitted a lab report stating there was a high likelihood of her having been strangled.

On April 3 this year, a local court issued its decision. Given that there were suspicious circumstances regarding the body, the court concluded that a further investigation was needed and instructed the investigation authorities to conduct a reinvestigation into the death of Masami and reach a conclusion within nine months.

The Niigata prefectural police in February 2021 had examined her body, which had been returned to Niigata. According to a senior investigator at the prefectural police, they were not able to determine the nature of the incident. The Italian court asked the prefectural police via Interpol to provide any relevant documents they possess.

Her parents hope that the Italian police will conduct a thorough investigation and find the truth.

The court ordered the investigation authorities to reinvestigate the incident and listed the names of some Italian people. One of the lawyers for the people named said to The Yomiuri Shimbun that his client had nothing to do with the death of Masami but the incident needed to be further investigated because she is suspected to have been assaulted.

To become an Opera singer

Born in Niigata, Masami belonged to a chorus club at her junior high school. Aiming to become an opera singer, she received personal lessons when she was a high school student. After studying at a two-year music college in Japan, she moved to Milan to study singing in 1998. She moved to Verona in 2000 and reportedly took auditions at opera companies and worked as a part-time singer for a chorus.

Courtesy of Ryuichi Sakata and Michiko Sakata
Masami Sakata performs at a concert during her stay in Japan in 2004.

When she temporarily returned to Japan in 2004, she held a concert as a soprano and sang songs such as “Natsu no Omoide” (Summer memories). The last time she returned to Niigata was in 2013, though she never failed to get in touch with her parents on their birthdays and New Year’s Day.