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Killings shake Japan's sense of safety

Slayings at school stir soul-searching

By Sharon Moshavi, Globe Correspondent, 6/9/2001

TOKYO - In Japan's worst-ever incidence of school violence, a man wielding a 6-inch knife slipped into an elementary school yesterday and stabbed eight first- and second-graders to death while wounding at least 15 other pupils and teachers.

Horrified Japanese stayed glued to nonstop television coverage of the aftermath, watching the death toll mount, bloodied children being carried out of the school, and panicked parents wailing. Many wondered what had happened to the country they had long believed was among the safest in the world.

The assailant, identified as 37-year-old Mamoru Takuma, was believed to have a history of psychological problems. In the end he turned the knife on himself but suffered only superficial wounds. He was captured by police immediately after the attack and hospitalized.

''Heartbreaking,'' was how Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi characterized the killings, a sentiment shared by many Japanese, who until recent years had rarely known such brutal crimes. Today, however, the crime rate stands at a 23-year high (although still much lower than US rates), and every few months, after another heinous killing, Japan engages in national soul-searching about what has gone wrong.

With strict gun-control laws, most slayings, in Japan, like this one, are committed with knives.

About 10:15 yesterday morning (9:15 p.m. Thursday EST), police and witnesses said, Takuma entered a second-grade classroom in the school in the western Japanese town of Ikeda and began systematically knifing pupils. He chased children who fled into the hallway, then moved on to a first-grade classroom.

One first-grade girl said she saw the knife-wielding man run into the classroom. ''He came in running, rushing, breathing so hard. There were three boys standing nearby the blackboard and they were cut with the knife,'' she told Japan's NHK television. ''I was so frightened. I ran away.''

Many of the pupils had multiple knife wounds, mostly in the back and stomach. The attack lasted an estimated 10 minutes. The attacker was finally subdued by several teachers.

Police were alerted when a handful of pupils fled to a nearby supermarket for help. ''One boy's back was covered with blood, and he collapsed in front of the cash register. His lips were deathly pale, and he could hardly speak,'' a supermarket employee told the Kyodo News Agency.

Police said the alleged assailant, who was taken from the scene in the back of a police car, his face concealed from cameras by a blue cloth, had been under the care of a psychiatrist. He told interrogators that before the attack he had taken 10 times his normal dose of antidepressants. Otherwise, his statements were incoherent, according to reports.

''This is another case that continues to shatter the safety myth of this country,'' said social commentator Yuko Kawanishi. ''And of all places, this happened in an elementary school. It's indescribably shocking.''

''A social trust has been breached,'' she added.

The last time Japan was faced with a slaying in a school was in 1999, when a 21-year-old man entered the grounds of an elementary school in Kyoto and stabbed a second-grader to death.

Schools and students in Japan enjoy an openness and freedom that long ago vanished in the United States. Schools are easily accessible to the public, and pupils as young as 6 take the subway by themselves. Now, Japanese worry they may have to turn their schools into fortresses.

Japan has been faced with a rising tide of violence over the last year, including stabbings, beatings, a hijacking, and most recently, the beating death of two men in cases of ''subway rage'' on crowded commuter trains.

The growing violence is being attributed to a host of social ills: financial pressures, insecurity and anxiety brought on by Japan's decade-long economic slump; rising family tensions; more aggressive youth; and increased societal isolation due to technology like video games and computers.

Yesterday's killings are expected to highlight what many consider another problem: Japan's mental health care system, which critics say offers minimal services.

While details of Takuma's background were sketchy, he appeared to have a history of mental illness. In 1999, when he was a janitor at another elementary school, he allegedly mixed tranquilizers into tea and served it to some teachers. They became ill, and Takuma was immediately suspected. News reports said he was believed to have been hospitalized temporarily at a psychiatric institution after that incident, and released with a prescription.

''Psychiatrists just tend to give drugs and concentrate on that. There's no counseling, no follow-up care, really,'' said Kawanishi, the commentator.

Most of the Japanese worry over crime has been focused on youth violence. Many of the most publicized recent slayings have been committed by Japanese in their teens and twenties.

Last year, a 17-year-old boy hijacked a bus at knifepoint, killing an elderly woman and keeping his knife at the throat of a 6-year-old girl. Days before that, another 17-year-old stabbed his 64-year-old neighbor to death.

The phrase ''17 and deadly,'' to describe dangerous youths, has entered the lexicon. Parliament last year moved to toughen statutes on juvenile offenders.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/9/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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