TOKYO — Japan was rocked by a horrific mass murder Tuesday morning in Tokyo perpetrated by a 26-year-old man, Satoshi Uematsu, a former nursing home worker who stabbed to death 19 disabled residents and injured 25 others before turning himself into the police. It was the largest mass murder in Japan by an individual since the end of World War II. Yet, as horrible as the crime appears to be, it was not unprecedented.
There have been other similar killing sprees dating back to 1938. They share one common thread: motive. The famous prosecutor Toshiro Igari once said there were only three main reasons for murder in Japan, “Koi, Kane, Enkon.” The first two, Koi (love) and Kane (money) are universal but the third word, Enkon—is a complex thing—meaning hatred, envy, or a grudge. Enkon is such a powerful emotion in Japan that it is associated with ghosts, who are bound to this world because of their hatred. Enkon is the subject of a hit horror novel and movie in Japan that was remade in the U.S. as The Grudge in 2004.
This most recent mass murder shows all the signs of being one man taking his grudge against society out on the easiest victims he could find. And while Uematsu appears to want to portray his rampage as an act of “mercy killing” (he believes invalids should be put of their misery), it is more than likely just another young man with a seething grudge that boiled over into violence.
According to the police and media reports, before 2:30 a.m. on July 26 Uematsu arrived at the facilities and broke a window with a hammer and climbed inside the building. He began stabbing the first people he could find and when one of the staff workers tried to stop him, Uematsu physically subdued the workers, bound them, and their keys. From that point, he went room-to-room, slitting throats and stabbing at the necks of the residents. He had worked at the facility since 2012, until either resigning or being forced to quit in February, possibly because the facilities became aware of his full body tattoo. (Tattoos in Japan are considered to be a sign of yakuza ties or an indication of anti-social behavior.)
The whole attack was over in less than half an hour.
At 2:50 a.m., on his Twitter account, minutes before turning himself into the police, Uematsu posted a picture of himself smiling and wearing a suit, with a message in Japanese that translates as, “May The World Become Peaceful,” and then in English: “beautiful Japan.” Shortly after 3 a.m., he turned himself in to the Kanagawa Tsukui Police, saying, “I did it. I got them.” He was arrested on charges of attempted murder—at the time–and trespassing.
The death toll from the day’s rampage is the second largest by an individual in Japan in the last 100 years.
Japan’s biggest spree killing occurred in May of 1938, in the rural village of Kamo. Mutsuo Toi, a 22-year-old man who felt ostracized by the villagers because of his tuberculosis, decided to take revenge on the people that he felt had spurned him. He cut off all the electricity to the village after dark, strapped two flashlights to a helmet on his head, and using a shotgun, a Japanese sword and an axe went door to door, eventually killing 30 people, and seriously injuring three others. He then blew out his brains with the shotgun.
In June 2001, Mamoru Takuma, a former soldier and ex-convict, went on a stabbing spree at an elementary school in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture—killing eight children, wounding 13 other students, and two teachers before being subdued. The prosecutors argued that Takuma had killed the children to harass his relatives by shaming them; he also targeted “the elite children” because he bore a grudge against a society in which he felt inferior. Takuma later told the courts, “I hate everything,” and requested an execution as soon as possible. He never apologized to the surviving victims or families of those who died. He was executed by hanging in September 2004.
In June 2008, Tomohiro Kato, who was 25 at the time, drove a rental truck into a crowded intersection in Akihabara, killing three people and injuring two. When the vehicle could go no further, he got out of the car, chased down and stabbed bystanders, killing four and wounding eight—killing seven people in total. The Supreme Court of Japan upheld his death penalty sentence in February of 2015. Kato was very vocal about his crime being an act of revenge. Kato explained in court testimony that his motive was to vent his anger and frustration at a society that shunned him. He would later boast that he had taught all of his “tormentors” a lesson about their behavior. Those tormentors included people he claimed had been harassing him online.
Kato posted anonymous messages online prior to the attack discussing his plans in great detail. Other mass murderers in Japan are believed to have been influenced by his example. Whether Uematsu copied Kato or sought to emulate him is unknown.
Yasuyuki Deguchi, one of Japan’s most well-known criminal psychologists, when appearing on Asashi Television, suggested Uematsu’s actions were motivated by a grudge and were the acts of someone seeking revenge. He noted that Uematsu had clearly planned out the attack and then turned himself in to the police after his mission was accomplished.
Today’s attack was not without warning. In February, on Valentine’s Day, Uematsu tried to hand-deliver a letter to Parliament’s Lower House speaker that demanded that all disabled people be put to death and create "a world that allows for mercy killing.” According to The Parliament’s Lower House Office Secretary Division, they refused to take the letter the first day but Uematsu came back. After the office examined the contents, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and the Kanagawa Police were alerted. Uematsu was involuntarily hospitalized in a mental clinic for 12 days for psychiatric evaluation but then released. Traces of marijuana were found in his blood tests—something the Japanese media has seized upon as being significant.
When the police took Uematsu’s statement today at the time of his arrest, he declared, “It would be better if the damned handicapped went away.” When pressed for an explanation of his motives for the killing he said, “I had a grudge against them”—using the verb form of enkon, which is “uramu” to describe his feelings. However, due to the nature of the Japanese language which requires no pronoun—it’s not clear who “them” is referring to—the patients or the staff at the facilities or society at large.
In the days to come many will question whether the attack could have been prevented. Some will point out Japan’s stigma in treating mental illness or seeking counsel. Others will suggest that if Japan had armed citizens then the deaths could have been prevented. In fact, it’s more likely that if Japan did have more guns in circulation—as was the case in 1938—the death toll would have been even higher.
Last year in this nation of 126 million people, there was only one shooting fatality.