Akihabara attack threat lost in message deluge

Obscure Web site draws more than a million postings daily, including Kato's warnings

by Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi

The Associated Press

To most of Japan, the deadly stabbings in Tokyo on June 8 were an incomprehensible act of sudden and indiscriminate violence.

But to readers of an obscure Web site called Extreme Exchange, Revised, the attack in the popular Akihabara shopping district that left seven dead was foretold.

Suspect Tomohiro Kato sent messages saying he wanted to kill somebody, anybody, and apparently hoped to be stopped. But his words were lost in a million postings.

Police refused to comment on how, or when, they learned of Kato’s postings. Media reports said he told investigators during questioning that he deliberately hinted at his bloody plans on the Internet in the hope someone would see them and stop him.

Within hours of his arrest, news of Kato’s Internet activity began to surface and access to the Extreme Exchange site — the bulletin board to which Kato sent postings from his cell phone — was quickly restricted by the site operator.

On a mirror site, which is a copy of the original site captured before it was shut down and posted on another server, Kato’s postings offer a wealth of insight into his mind-set. They were generally listed only by number, with no name or even nickname attached.

As early as two months ago, he laid out his basic plan of attack, although he added at the time he wouldn’t carry it out.

Then, as though writing a live feed, on the day of the killings he posted some 30 times, saying he was on his way to Akihabara, that he intended to kill and, finally, just 20 minutes before the rampage began, that “it’s time.”

Kato, a 25-year-old factory worker, is accused of ramming a rented 2-ton truck into a crowd of pedestrians at the popular shopping area and then racing around wildly with a military-style dagger and stabbing as many people as he could before police finally overpowered him on a side street.

The assault lasted only a few minutes, but when it was over seven people lay dead in pools of blood and another 10 had been injured in the worst attack on the streets of Tokyo since Aum Shinrikyo unleashed nerve gas on the subway system in 1995.

Kato was arrested at the scene with the bloodstained weapon, and police say he has confessed. Prosecutors have 20 days to formally charge him.

To anyone who would read his messages, Kato complained for months that he was ugly and would never find a girlfriend, that he felt he had no future and — increasingly toward the end — that he just wanted to kill somebody, anybody.

The Internet, he wrote, was his “only refuge.”

But even there, his voice was drowned out.

The Extreme Exchange bulletin board Kato posted to was a small feature in a larger site called Megaview — which gets more than 1 million posts a day. Users needed only to register to post, with no fee. The chatter on the various Megaview boards ranges widely, but is mostly innocuous and terse — thus making it all the less likely to raise any red flags.

Megaview’s operator was not immediately available for comment.

The case comes as authorities have been increasingly concerned about Internet abuse, often involving suicidal posters and people chillingly spurring them on: Last October, police arrested a man who ran an Internet site on which he offered himself as a murderer-for-hire. The 33-year-old electrician allegedly gave a 21-year-old suicidal woman sleeping pills and suffocated her in April. She paid him about ¥200,000. In December, four young men were found dead inside a sealed car with a charcoal stove inside. Charcoal stoves, which emit carbon monoxide, are frequently used in group suicides. Police believe the men met on an Internet chat site designed to bring suicidal people together. Last month, some 50 people reportedly killed themselves by mixing household chemicals to produce the deadly gas hydrogen sulfide, prompting the National Police Agency to urge Internet providers to delete materials from Web sites showing readers how to mix the chemicals. Some sites reportedly provide “poison gas” warnings that viewers can print out and hang outside their doors when they kill themselves.

Experts believe there is also a great deal of criminal activity out there — from drug dealing to prostitution to casing houses for burglaries — and point to Extreme Exchange as an example of what the authorities are up against.

Yoshiaki Ishii, an official in charge of Internet guidelines at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, said anyone can set up a bulletin board and start a thread on just about any topic, from harmless observations to the solicitation of criminal activities.

He said that because of the sheer volume of Internet chatter, it is virtually impossible to monitor the ravings of users who may or may not make the transition from venting their rage into the ether to actually manifesting it violently on the streets.

Sites and their users are notoriously fluid and hard to keep track of. Users are often anonymous or posting under false names and sometimes under elaborately conceived false identities.

The government has set up a four-member task force in cooperation with four major umbrella organizations of 300 Internet providers and site operators to step up their policing on the Web, according to Hiroyuki Kuwako, of the Telecom Services Association, who is one of the four members.

Kuwako confirmed that Kato had posted on the Extreme Exchange board but said that only came to the attention of the authorities afterward. He stressed that the task of monitoring such postings to prevent crime is Herculean.

“We cannot be monitoring every single site 24 hours a day, and policing the sites also encounters an issue of freedom of speech,” he said. “The postings in the latest case were found in hindsight.”

Experts note that although Kato’s violent outburst has dominated the nation’s attention, his underlying rage may be shared by many more young people who live alone and face increasing economic and social insecurity as Japan’s society changes.

Spending an increasing amount of time online, instead of with friends or family, these young people are also more likely to seek consolation in Internet chat rooms than in real conversations, often increasing — not easing — their feelings of isolation.

“There are many people who have troubles and have nobody to turn to other than strangers on the Net,” Kuwako said. “In the end, we just have to hope that other Internet users can give a helping hand to save a suicidal message sender or others who are proposing a crime.”