‘The clicking sound of my cell phone echoes emptily in my room. . . . If only I had a girlfriend, I wouldn’t have to live so miserably.’
The thousands of messages posted online by Tomohiro Kato reveal the loneliness that haunted him in the days before he instigated the deadly attacks in Tokyo’s Akihabara district on June 8. Although experts initially pointed to video games and low-wage jobs as being key factors behind his crime, details surrounding the incident suggest a bigger issue was at play. The incident, in many ways, highlights the extent to which the notion of “seken” (the society, the people one deals with) continues to govern peoples’ lives in Japan.
Kato’s workplace woes are well-documented: A top-class student in elementary school and junior high, he had dreams of designing cars for Toyota, but ended up in a temporary job checking the paint-work on vehicles at a Toyota subsidiary in Susono, Shizuoka Prefecture. Earning around ¥220,000 a month — significantly less than the ¥350,000 salary of regular employees — and struggling with debt, he was anxious about his employers’ plans to lay off most of its temporary staff in June.
In his postings between June 3-8 on the mobile phone site Extreme Exchange, however, Kato makes it clear that relationships — or the dysfunction and lack thereof — are his main concern. He uses the word “hitori” (alone) 39 times, “kanojo” (girlfriend) 42 times, and “tomodachi” (friend) 26 times. More than poverty or troubles at work, Kato sees his lack of a partner or friends as being at the root of his sense of worthlessness.
“I don’t have a girlfriend. Just because of this, my life has fallen apart,” he wrote on June 5. Three days later, he was driving a rented truck toward a busy intersection in Akihabara.
Dr. Naoki Sato, a professor of Information Engineering at the Kyushu Institute of Technology, notes in his book “Boso Suru ‘Seken’ ” (“The Rampaging Society”) that while social relations are important everywhere, they carry particular weight in Japan, where the word for “individual” — “kojin” — did not make its first appearance in print until 1884, in a translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Social Contract.”
“In Japan, individuals are created by their relation to the people around them,” Sato says. “Whenever anyone causes an incident here, their parents immediately apologize to the seken: That relationship takes precedence over everything else.”
Sato describes seken as a double-edged sword: On the one hand, pressure to live within it has contributed to Japan’s famously low crime rate; on the other hand, it can also push people excluded by it to desperation.
“The problem is that because people think it isn’t possible to live outside the seken in Japan . . . these individuals have to disappear, commit suicide — the number of suicides in Japan still exceeds 30,000 each year — or resort to self-destructive crimes, such as this one.”
In his book, Sato cites the example of Kaoru Kobayashi, a newspaper deliveryman who killed a 6-year-old girl in Nara Prefecture in 2004. A chronic loner, Kobayashi claimed he had “no intention of being reintegrated in society,” and pumped his fist in victory upon hearing his death sentence.
While Kato believed himself to lack friends, he had no shortage of sympathizers after the incident. On 2ch.net, Japan’s largest web forum, 360,000 new postings on the Akihabara incident were made in the five days following the attacks, and while the majority condemned the murders, some said they could understand how he felt. A few even lauded Kato as a hero who stood up for the “loser group” in Japanese society: the shut-ins, the loners, and the country’s 3 million contract and part-time workers.
Mitsue Komiya, founder of Kizuna, a support group for parents based in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture, feels that Kato was in many ways a victim of his parents’ determination to make him a “winner” in the eyes of society. In one of his last posts, Kato wrote that his parents forced him to study hard so that they could “brag to their neighbors” about their “perfect son.”
Komiya observes, “I get the sense that Kato’s parents knew something was wrong with their son, but weren’t able to talk about it with anybody.”
Dr. Seiei Mutou, director of the Tokyo Mental Health Academy, feels that the Akihabara incident is only the “tip of the iceberg” of things to come. A veteran counselor, Mutou sees many youths in their 20s and 30s who are suffering the consequences of the social and economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s, during which institutions at the core of Japanese society were undermined.
“Temporary workers don’t get any solidarity from their coworkers, because they’re treated as disposable staff,” he says. “Parents play less and less of a part in their regional community, so their children grow up not knowing how to interact with people.” Even though many young people send dozens of text messages a day to their friends, Mutou sees these exchanges as largely “based on ‘tatemae’ — polite facades to avoid being bullied.”
Although Kato claimed to have given up on “flimsy” relationships that were “based only on appearances,” he continued to post minute-to-minute updates via his cell phone about his plans for murder in Akihabara right up until the last half-hour. Reading his postings, Mutou believes that Kato was hoping for someone to stop him. “He probably wanted somebody to confront him, to deal with him directly and ask him why he was doing this. But of course, that wouldn’t happen in Japan today, so when the time came . . .”
At 12:35 on Sunday afternoon in Akihabara, Kato rammed a 2-ton truck into a crowd at the busy crossing at Kanda San-chome. After his truck collided with a taxi, Kato emerged brandishing a knife, screaming as he began chasing down shoppers and stabbing them from behind. The attacks left seven people dead, another 10 injured.
Dr. Akihiko Yamamoto, from Oita Prefectural Hospital, rushed to save the injured victims, including 21-year-old Mai Muto, who was fatally stabbed while trying to help an elderly man struck by the truck. Having witnessed the “gruesome” event first hand, Yamamoto disagrees with Kato’s actions, but “can understand to some extent how the suspect felt.” He recalls a discussion from his student days about how, if put in the position of a terminally ill patient, some people might choose to “take everyone down with them,” Essentially, Kato’s inhuman act was borne of that very human rationale, says Yamamoto.
“There’s no doubt that some people think this way, and I feel they aren’t so rare,” he says, adding that society must change to prevent such indiscriminate murders in the future.
But what kind of change can prevent what Kato called Japan’s backlog of “would-be criminals” from following in his footsteps? Sato believes that Japan’s culture is unlikely to change, and that the country must instead get rid of the jarring inequalities that disrupt social unity.
Mutou, on the other hand, feels that Japan will eventually need to undergo an “individualist revolution,” where people will assert themselves instead of looking to others to validate their existence. “Up to now, everyone in Japan could be interdependent — you could count on your parents and your superiors. These days, nobody will take care of you, so you have to be independent.”
One thing that is clear, however, is that many people of Kato’s generation — often perceived as being indifferent to the seken — still care deeply about securing their place within it. All of his life, Kato was under pressure to obtain the trappings of social success: good grades, a respectable job, close friends and a romantic partner. His sole positive message before the attack, in which he said he felt “a little happy” to still be included in group e-mails, suggests that Kato had invested too much of himself in a society that invested little back in him.
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