Japan questions itself over mass murderer

Japan was today struggling to make sense of a knife maniac’s rampage that left seven people dead in a Tokyo district popular with youngsters.

The attack has shocked a country with a traditionally low violent crime rate.

Mourners, some weeping, piled flowers in honour of the dead at the junction in the Akihabara district where the man yesterday rammed pedestrians with a rental truck, then jumped out swinging a dagger, leaving 17 victims bleeding in the street.

Police arrested blood-splattered 25-year-old Tomohiro Kato, a temporary worker at a factory outside Tokyo, who had posted a series of internet messages via his mobile phone in the hours before the slaughter, chronicled his steps up to just minutes before it.

In a message thread titled, “I will kill people in Akihabara,” he wrote: “I want to crash the vehicle and, if it becomes useless, I will then use a knife. Goodbye, everyone.”

That was followed several hours later by a message sent just 20 minutes before the truck crash that read simply: “It’s time.”

For many Japanese who grew up convinced their nation was safe, the first reaction was shock.

“It’s unbelievable that things like this are happening in our country,” 19-year-old Tsutsumo Hirano, a schoolfriend of one of the victims.

The government vowed to impose greater controls on access and possession of large knives like the one Kato used, while taking steps to provide better security for crowded public places.

Japanese grappled with possible explanations for the attack, the latest in a string of bloody assaults in recent years. Some speculated that the growing gap between rich and poor was spurring rage among have-nots like Kato; others said Japan has become a lonelier place in recent years.

“The group mentality has given away to individuality in Japan,” said Nobuo Komiya, a criminologist at Rissho University in Tokyo. “This is fine for people who can deal with their problems on their own, but not for those who need someone to talk and listen.”

Kato was clearly troubled. Last week, he suddenly lost control of his temper at his factory in Shizuoka where he had worked since November, said company executive Osamu Namai.

“He was screaming that his uniform was missing. When his colleague got a new uniform for him, he had already left and never returned,” Mr Namai said.

The attack was a blow to Akihabara, once a light industrial area that has grown over the past 15 years into Tokyo’s main computer and youth culture centre, with everything from huge multi-storey electronics emporiums to tiny cafes where youths read comicbooks or converse with hostesses dressed as popular animation characters.

Kato, like many Japanese young people, shared this fascination with anime. In a page from his junior high school yearbook published by Yomiuri newspaper , he had made a drawing of his favourite video game character holding a dagger. He wrote in English, “Personality Crooked”.

There was no apparent evidence, however, linking those interests to the killing. He reportedly went to Akihabara for the attack because its main streets are closed to cars and open to large numbers of pedestrians on Sundays.

Aside from the makeshift memorial, shopkeepers and workers in Akihabara went about their business as usual today. Just behind the memorial was a large electronics store, where a massive TV set flashed advertisements down into the street.

Employees inside the store refused to say anything about the killings and customers browsed the aisles.

The murders were the latest in a string of troubling attacks in Japan.

In March, one person was stabbed to death and at least seven others were hurt by a man with two knives outside a shopping mall in eastern Japan. In January, a 16-year-old boy attacked five people in a shopping area, injuring two of them.

A spate of knife attacks also have occurred in schools, the worst on June 8, 2001, when a man with a history of mental illness burst into elementary school near Osaka, killing eight children. He was executed in 2004.

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