This nation that bans guns, prides itself on its relatively low crime rate and has considered itself immune to schoolyard massacres struggled Friday to comprehend the rampage of a man who stabbed eight first- and second-graders to death with a kitchen knife and injured 15 other people.
The tragedy, and reports portraying the man who caused it as deranged, left citizens aghast and bewildered. It was the most horrifying in a string of violent crimes that have shocked Japan in recent months. This morning's Mainichi newspaper ran small, round photographs of each of the victims--one boy, 6, and seven girls, 7 and 8, in pigtails and braids--on its front page.
"In the past, this kind of thing only happened in the U.S.," Kohei Akashi, 15, said as he bicycled past the sprawling campus of the elite school where the massacre occurred Friday morning. "But recently, even people my age are killing people."
The teenager was referring to several high-profile slayings by youths of neighbors or fellow students. There have also been some widely publicized bludgeonings with baseball bats and assaults that have taken place on train platforms.
A 59-year-old man who lives near the school stood nearby after work Friday night in a kind of daze. "I thought because we don't have guns, we couldn't have such mass murders," he said.
Heinous anywhere, the crimes are all the more jarring in Japan, considering that few people think twice about walking city streets at any hour and children as young as 6 routinely take the subway to school alone.
It is a false sense of security in many ways. Violent crime has been on the increase in Japan, with murders, rapes and arsons up 95% since 1991 and with 18,281 such incidents reported in the year ended in March, according to the National Police Agency. Murders alone rose 14% in nine years, to 1,391 in 2000.
Among the most recent crimes, a 15-year-old newspaper delivery boy allegedly stabbed to death three members of a neighbor's family; a 17-year-old boy brandished a 16-inch knife as he hijacked a bus in southwestern Japan, killing one passenger; a teenager stabbed a fellow student after a junior high squabble; and a 21-year-old man stabbed a 7-year-old boy in a schoolyard.
But Friday's schoolyard killing was the most deadly single incident since the nerve gas poisoning by a cult that left 12 people dead and hundreds injured in the Tokyo subway in 1995. Moreover, the slayings were reported to be the first inside a school, shattering the illusion that classrooms are sacred.
Since guns are outlawed, the weapon of choice in Japan tends to be a knife, although other instruments are occasionally used. A few years ago, for instance, a man attempted to hijack a Japanese jetliner brandishing an ice pick.
Still, no one in any country is used to seeing 6-year-olds--clad in crisp school uniforms and with microphones thrust in their faces--talking about how scared they were when they saw a man stabbing their classmates.
"Some friends were crying, some friends were injured, some were dead," a little boy told television crews.
How did he know they were dead?
"They were bleeding from the stomach," he replied, surprisingly calmly.
By that time, ambulances had encircled the sprawling campus, whose new school year had begun in April.
Friday was an otherwise ordinary school day at the Osaka Educational University-Affiliated School, as it is known, a prestigious nationally funded school of nearly 700 students ranging from elementary to high school. Students are selected from a large surrounding area based on test scores.
When alleged killer Mamoru Takuma, 37, entered the wing that housed the youngest students, brandishing a new knife with a 6-inch blade, students in what is known as "second-grade south" were watering plants in their science-class garden: Five girls in this class would die. The group known as "second-grade west" had just changed its seating layout: Two girls from this class would die. "First-grade south" had just returned from music class: One 6-year-old boy would die. That child's doctor would later tell reporters that it was as if all the blood had drained from the child's chest.
In a rampage that lasted less than 15 minutes, 15 other people in the school, including three teachers, would be injured, half of them seriously. Six others were taken to the hospital but immediately released. Most suffered stab wounds to the back.
One schoolgirl told Japanese reporters that during the attack, one of the students managed to somehow get onto the school's public address system.
"There was a shriek," the girl said. "Then I heard a cry for help."
One of the teachers, Yosuke Kawakami, 27, whose class was gardening, told police that after the man entered the school, brandishing the knife and attacking students, two other teachers were already trying to catch him. After guiding students to the playground, Kawakami joined the effort, and he and another teacher caught the killer and held him till police came soon thereafter. Kawakami's face was cut, while first-grade teacher Yoshiro Tanabe was critically injured and remained in critical condition this morning.
The moment he was caught, NHK television reported, the alleged killer said: "I'm tired. I'm tired."
Police and the media painted a portrait of an unemployed man with an erratic job history, several past incidents of questionable behavior and indications that Takuma suffered from depression and mental illness.
He reportedly took 10 doses of tranquilizers Friday before beginning his terror mission. Police said he told them, "I just hated everything" and "I thought about committing suicide many times, but I couldn't do it. I thought maybe I could be sentenced to death."
In the interrogations that followed, Takuma reportedly seemed confused, telling police that he had stabbed 100 people with a knife at a bus station in Ikeda. This largely residential city of about 100,000 is on the outskirts of Osaka, a metropolis about two hours by bullet train from Tokyo. According to media accounts, Takuma was a high school dropout who at one time served in the air force but dropped out after one year of the three-year commitment. He was fired two years ago from a janitorial job at another school after putting tranquilizers into the hot tea of four colleagues, who suffered headaches afterward. He reportedly told police at that time that he "wanted to release stress created by bad relationships," which apparently included a divorce from his wife. He reportedly wasn't jailed because of mental incapacity.
He had a spotty employment record. As a municipal bus driver for four years in the early 1990s, he was disciplined after telling a woman to move to the back of the bus because her perfume was too strong. He had lived alone in a one-room apartment since October, and neighbors said he threw garbage out the window and occasionally spat.
His father, 68, whose name was not disclosed, told the Yomiuri newspaper, "I want to say this to him: Die. I want to die too."
The family kicked him out of the house 20 years ago, the older man said.
"My son was self-centered, and he couldn't stand it when things didn't go as he wished," he said.
In the wake of Friday's bloodletting, several psychologists and experts from nearby universities were sent to the school, and 50 female officers from the Osaka Police Department were deployed to counsel families of students and victims. School will be closed until Wednesday.
After the attack, other schools in the area sent children home.
Experts have been at a loss to explain why things are breaking down in Japanese society, where extended families are increasingly breaking up and there is a growing sense of isolation and alienation.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi struggled to find an expression of solace for the nation but said he was having trouble coming up with one.
"I just can't find the words for these families," Koizumi said. "[First and second grade] is the sweetest, most adorable time of childhood. Our safe society is breaking down. What should we do?"
Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.
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Deadly Knife Attack in Japan
Here's a look at what happened Friday at Ikeda Elementary School near Osaka, Japan, where a man stabbed nearly two dozen people, killing eight students.
1. Man wielding knife enters campus through east gate, which was closed but unlocked.
2. Man enters south building, making his way through classrooms on terrace level.
3. He enters four classrooms of first-and second-grade students, slashing at victims.
4. Man is subdued by teachers, who hold him until police arrive.
Source: Sankei Shimbun Compiled by Times' Tokyo Bureau researcher Hisako Ueno and Mike Faneuff