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What’s the Matter with Japan?

A worrying string of random acts of violence by young, troubled men is shaking up the country.

by
Garrett DeOrio

Bio

June 10, 2008 - 11:59 am

In a trend that seems to be accelerating on both sides of the Pacific, Japan was shocked on Sunday to hear of yet another stabbing spree, this one proving to be more lethal than most.

By the time Tokyo police apprehended 25-year-old temp worker Tomohiro Kato, he had killed seven people and injured ten more. Because he decided to wreak havoc in Tokyo’s busy Akihabara district, a four-hour drive from the Shizuoka prefecture town where he resided, the incident became the most extensively and graphically documented of what many now see as a worrying string of random acts of violence, the likes of which postwar Japan has not often seen.

Unlike most such incidents in the US, this story does not take place in a small town where nothing much happens. Akihabara is a bustling urban district on the east side of Tokyo, known for its electronics shops and, of late, its status as the world capital of otaku - self-declared geeks with obsessions ranging from “cosplay” (dressing up in costumes, usually of manga or anime characters, sometimes with, sometimes without erotic overtones) to collecting figurines to arranging “dates” with high-tech life-size silicone dolls, almost always revolving around Japan’s booming comic book, animated film, and video game industries.

On Sundays, Akihabara’s main drag is blocked to vehicle traffic and turned into what Kato, in a message posted on a cell phone-based forum prior to the attack, called a “pedestrian’s paradise”. According to statements released by the police and messages Kato posted on the site, this was precisely why he rented a van and drove up from Shizuoka to vent his exhaustion with life.

In the randomness of his attacks and his warnings prior to carrying them out, Kato’s rampage bears unsettling similarities to that of 24-year-old Masahiro Kanagawa, who warned police by calling them from an unmanned police box before killing one and injuring seven in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki prefecture (northeast of Tokyo, about an hour from Akihabara) in March. Both men were stuck in dead-end jobs, Kato as an occasional temp worker and Kanagawa as a part-time convenience store employee, reportedly had few friends, spent large amounts of time on line, and made regular visits to Akihabara.

The common thread of manga and anime, harkens back to the 1989 case of Tsutomu Miyazaki, widely held to be Japan’s worst serial killer, whose apartment was found to be filled with violent, pornographic manga and videos when police searched it after arresting him for the rape, murder, mutilation, and partial cannibalization of four little girls in Saitama prefecture (on Tokyo’s northern border.)

That both Kato and Kanagawa were regular visitors to Akihabara is unsurprising not because reading manga, watching anime, or playing video games, even of a violent, pornographic, or pedophilic nature, necessarily leads to such behavior, but because Akihabara, while teeming with tourists and computer shoppers as well as otaku is a haven for lonely, socially maladjusted young men. Among the district’s myriad shops are maid cafes (where waitresses dressed in French maid costumes welcome “master” “home” before fawningly serving him overpriced coffee and cakes), ordinary counter-service ramen and curry shops, and boutiques catering to just about every hobby or obsession anyone could have. . . except socializing. Unlike the capital’s other busy districts, lively bars, eateries, and izakaya, where groups of people can be found drinking and chatting the night (and day) away, are not a prominent feature of Akihabara.

The other thread tying Kato, Kanagawa, Miyazaki (commonly, like legendary writers, artists, and athletes, known by his first name only: Tsutomu; like referring to Jeffrey Dahmer as just “Jeffrey”), and the other, less “successful” frustrated and lonely young men who engage in random stabbings in Japan on roughly an annual basis, is a professed exhaustion with life, a lack of hope, a perception of being picked on, disrespected, and ignored, which manifests itself in violent outbursts.

Since 1998, when it nearly doubled in a year, Japan’s suicide rate has remained among the developed world’s highest. (Although, arguably, not as high as it is sometimes portrayed as being, with over 30,000 people taking their own lives every year so far this decade.) Recently, suicide in groups, usually by means of a charcoal stove in an enclosed car in a remote park, has been on the rise, with participants usually meeting on line. More recently, suicide has taken a turn toward being a public health problem of the sort normally only considered in areas where the threat of a suicide bombing is a reality: hydrogen sulfide gas and other noxious gasses emerged as a new trend in suicide earlier this year, with people in hotel rooms or other densely populated areas killing themselves, then taking others with them as the gas spread throughout the building or emergency workers tried to rescue them.

So what’s going on in Japan? Samurai movies aside, there’s not strong evidence to suggest that Japan has a culture of death or that people are growing more violent on the whole. Japan, after all, still has one of the world’s lowest overall crime rates and is safe enough that parents still let children travel through the city on their own. Physical fights are exceedingly rare by the standards of most other countries, and you can count on getting your wallet back, cash still there, should you drop it on the street. Yet the headlines like Sunday’s are becoming more and more common.

Some people blame the economy. The lifetime employment and explosive economic growth of the Bubble years are not even a vague memory to today’s twenty-somethings. Kids still work hard, they still leave school to go study at a cram school before heading home to do homework. They still join college sports clubs that demand twice daily practices six days a week and live in a society where becoming (or marrying) a white-collar professional is the primary measure of success, but they also live in a society where the vaunted “salaryman” is becoming less common than the denigrated “freeter” (serial, long-term underemployed “slacker”) or the struggling contract worker, who works full-time, but without the pay or benefits of his salaryman counterparts. They live in a society where stresses abound.

And they live in a society where mental illness and psychological problems are ignored. Japan has a broad and relatively generous national health insurance scheme, open to everyone in the country. Even without paying his own premiums, a freeter like Kanagawa could have remained on his parents’ insurance (and he probably did, seeing as he lived with them) and someone like Kato would have had the premium deducted from his paycheck, as the law requires, so they would have been covered.

That’s good news if they were suffering from bronchitis, a broken bone, or even cancer, but they weren’t. It appears reasonable to assume that they were suffering from some form of depression or that, at the very least, they had issues with which they were unable to deal on their own, and there’s the rub: Japan’s health insurance scheme does not cover treatment for psychological problems or mental illnesses. You are, one has to assume, supposed to buck up, deal with it, be a man, whatever works. Just don’t be a nuisance.

This is still a society that stigmatizes psychological problems, dispensing sedatives or other medications, on those occasions when they dispensed, with advice like, “Stop being so selfish,” (the advice received by an associate, obviously remaining anonymous, of this correspondent) or, at best, sympathy with little else to help if you’re not prepared to pay a psychiatrist’s bill out of pocket.

On Monday, one of the college freshmen I teach said, “At least it wasn’t Cho [Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter]. If Japan had [readily available and legal] guns, it would have been a lot worse. But this is a big problem for Japan. People are losing their morals.”

Not as bad as Virginia Tech perhaps, but not entirely different: young, isolated, frustrated men, fed up with life, who can think of nothing else to do than to remove themselves from society and take part of society with them.

The conclusion seems kind of obvious: If only those guys could have gotten the help they needed, if only someone had noticed the signs.

Garrett DeOrio runs Trans-Pacific Radio, a podcast channel based in Tokyo which provides regular review and analysis of Japanese and East Asian news and politics
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