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Chilling warning unheard

Times Staff Writer

“I’m going to kill people in Akihabara. I’m going to crash into a crowd of people and when the car is down I’ll use a knife. Goodbye everyone.”

-- Text message believed to have been posted on the Web by Tomohiro Kato at 5:21 a.m. the day seven people were slain in Tokyo’s Akihabara district.

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-- In the days leading up to Sunday’s deadly violence, Tomohiro Kato is believed to have written hundreds of anonymous text messages posted from his cellphone to an Internet bulletin board, exposing intimate details of his unhappy life.

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The writer complained that his parents ditched him when he reached high school, blaming his plummeting grades on their refusal to help him study. He lamented that he was ugly and had no girlfriend.

“That’s the source of my problems,” Japanese police believe the 25-year-old temporary auto parts worker wrote. “I’m in a mood to kill people regardless of who they are.”

The warning was not enough to avert a rampage that left seven dead and 10 injured in Tokyo’s popular Akihabara district.

The Internet can link people from around the block and around the world, but it can also, as Kato’s experience seems to show, be a lonely place, a black hole for data. Kato is reportedly telling police that his repeated Internet threats to kill people were a cry for help. If so, they had about the same effect as a man standing in a closet and screaming with a bucket over his head.

“Despite his appeal, nobody responded to him,” said Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara in an interview.

The head of Japan’s massive metropolis has been a prominent critic of what he sees as the loss of old social ties and the increasingly self-contained lives of younger generations. No amount of online living could compensate for Kato’s loneliness, he argued.

“He was in a virtual world,” Ishihara said. “He was not connected to anyone.”

Police believe that Kato blogged about his progress as he traveled from his home 60 miles southwest of Tokyo to Akihabara, the capital’s sacred turf for digital youth culture.

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The location is laden with significance.

Akihabara is Tokyo’s subversive neon playground for young males, the place they come for the pleasures of the maid cafes where young women dressed in tunics and lace cater to their nonsexual fetishes, or to browse for animated films and manga comics that drip with themes of sex and sexual violence.

It is also the cradle of Kato’s own kind: awkward loners devoted to cartoon worlds populated by animated characters and robots.

In the posts, Kato allegedly professed to being interested only in “two-dimensional girlfriends.”

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The five-minute spasm of violence Sunday, during which Kato allegedly struck at least three people while driving a truck before leaping out and slashing his way through the crowd with a survival knife, has injected a dose of dark reality into Akihabara’s fantasies. The sidewalk shrines of flowers and green tea that swelled in the aftermath were for real victims: a retired dentist shopping with his son for a computer, a music student, a cook.

“Japan is the petri dish for how far you can go replacing your real life with a virtual one,” said Roland Kelts, author of “Japanamerica,” a study of the global appeal of Japanese pop culture. “But there’s also a dark side to that. Is a virtual life really satisfying? Is it an adequate substitute for a wife and kids, or friends? And if you look at Kato’s postings, you see the outer limits of virtual life.”

If Kato is confirmed as the blogger who dropped a trail of digital bread crumbs leading to his crime, he would be just one of millions of young Japanese who have come to keep detailed diaries of their lives online. Tokyo is awash in young people offering a real-time description of where they are, what they are doing and how they feel.

The postings that authorities believe were written by Kato on Sunday make no distinction between the banal and the traumatic:

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5:21 a.m.: “I’m sleepy.”

5:34 a.m.: “I still have a headache.”

5:44 a.m.: “It’s a pity if I get caught in the act.”

6:03 a.m.: “I can’t make friends, can I?”

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The postings continued for six hours, up until 20 minutes before the mayhem was unleashed. “It’s time,” he typed at 12:10 p.m.

Kato reportedly told investigators that he picked Akihabara because he knew it would be packed with shoppers and gawkers on a Sunday afternoon, when its main thoroughfare is limited to pedestrian traffic.

The area exists to cater to people’s digital obsessions, making it inevitable that images of the carnage would quickly show up on the Internet. Pictures from cellphone cameras taken by witnesses reached the Web before Japan’s television networks could break into their programming.

Even the most dramatic video images of the day, television footage of a lone policeman sitting atop Kato and arresting him, were shot by an off-duty network cameraman who happened to be in Akihabara with his personal digital camera.

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There was no refuge for the dead and the injured.

“There were many onlookers taking pictures of my friends as they were dying,” said a university student quoted in the Shukan Shincho, a popular weekly magazine. “I tried to stop them. But they never stopped. They were trying to show off that they were there.”

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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--

On latimes.com

To see more photos, visit

latimes.com/japan.

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