2016 Terror Attack a Contradictory Sign of Japan’s Safety

Intruder’s attack on disabled a rare case of violence

By: Todd Crowell

The intruder broke the glass on the rear door to gain entrance to the Tsukai Yanayri home for the disabled in Sagamihara a town near Tokyo in July 2016. The time was 2 am, and the 145 residents and staff on duty were sleeping soundly.

The 26-year-old intruder, Satoshi Uematsu (above), moved stealthily from patient room to patient room stabbing each victim in the neck with one of a collection of kitchen knives he brought with him. There could hardly be a sound as Uematsu forever silenced 19 people and injured 26 more.

The staff was slow to realize that something was amiss, and the first call to the police came 2:20 am, fully 20 minutes after the intruder had gained entrance and had begun his evil mission. He departed unchallenged 20 minutes later, turning himself into the local police station.

Last week, Uematsu was sentenced to death by hanging. He never formally admitted his guilt, but his defense lawyers tried to free him using the argument of diminished mental capacity, rather ironic in view of who his victims were.

The presiding judge, Kiyoshi Aonuma, cited the severity of the act, the premeditated planning and lack of remorse in pronouncing the death sentence: “The maliciousness of the crime was extreme and left no room for leniency.”  

The court dismissed the defense team’s arguments for mitigation. They had even claimed at one point that Uematsu had undergone a psychological change due to excessive use of marijuana that later triggered the attack.

Japan is famously safe, and mass killings such as those in the United States are virtually unheard of. The number of such murders since the end of the war can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Partly this is due to strict controls on firearms. Guns are almost impossible to attain.

In June of 2001, Mamoru Takuma, a man with a history of mental illness, stabbed eight children to death in an elementary school in Osaka using a kitchen knife. He was executed in 2004.

In June 2008 Tomohiro Kato, 25, drove a truck into a busy crowd of people in the Akihabara shopping district of Tokyo famous for electronics supplies. Then he climbed out of the car and began stabbing people at random. Seven people died. 

Karo was eventually sentenced to death in a judgement that was confirmed in 2015 but has not yet been executed, 12 years after his rampage. In his trial, he claimed he was motivated by revenge against people who had harassed him over the Internet.

And, of course, there is nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, exactly 25 years ago. This mass murder, however, is in a class by itself both in terms of the instrument of murder, nerve gas, and the potential for even greater number of casualties than the 13 killed and 50 injured.

After his arrest, Uematsu freely spoke with the media defending his right to kill the disabled people in the care center because in his opinion they had no right to live.

He made similar arguments in a letter delivered to the chairman of the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s parliament. “disabled people only create unhappiness,” he wrote, “my goal is a world in which the severely disabled can be euthanized.”

Uemaru had told the court he would not appeal the ruling no matter the outcome. Throughout his trial, he had implied that he was on some kind of mission to eradicate the world of “useless” disabled people.

Before the attack it was learned that Uematsu had actually worked at the care home a few months before the rampage, so he knew the layout. But he made no claims that he had been mistreated by the care home while working there. His aim was to kill disabled patients.

Uematsu also told interviewers that he was influenced by the ideals of Adolf Hitler, who practiced euthanasia and whose killings were designed to improve the master race.

In Japan, being disabled still carries a stigma. Much was done at the trial to protect the identities of the victims’ relatives, such as assigning code names to them. The authorities also erected a special place with a partition to keep the families hidden from the view of other courtroom spectators.

“The Sagamihara case poses great challenges to our society. It demands that we all confront deep-rooted prejudices both in ourselves and in society at large,” wrote the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in an editorial.

The killings were not that far removed from the eugenics law that permitted the involuntary sterilization of people with intellectual or mental disabilities. Some 25,000 Japanese were sterilized under the People With Disabilities Law of 1948. It was repealed only in 1996.

Only last year parliament issued a formal apology and compensation to those mistreated by the law. Said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “The government sincerely reflects on and deeply apologies for the suffering of the victims.”