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Akihabara killer followed plot mapped by the media

by Philip Brasor

After serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki was hanged on June 17, some death-penalty opponents wondered out loud if Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama had signed the execution order as a response to the indiscriminate murders of seven people on the streets of Akihabara nine days earlier. Of course, Hatoyama didn’t mention any connection, but that didn’t stop the media from making their own. At least two weekly magazines, Asahi and Aera, ran analytical articles tracing a vector of violence that extended from Miyazaki to Akihabara and which included other high-profile murders in between.

Miyazaki and Tomohiro Kato, the 25-year-old man arrested onsite for the Akihabara killings, don’t have much in common. The former killed four little girls in 1988 and 1989 after abducting and imprisoning them, while the latter allegedly killed strangers by first driving a rented 2-ton truck into a crowd and then stabbing as many people as he could. Miyazaki apparently had, at best, a tenuous grasp of reality, while suspect Kato’s self-pity and bitterness sprang from real-world disappointments related to family and work.

Image-wise, Miyazaki and Kato represent two variations on the otaku model. Miyazaki, in fact, popularized the neologism. At the time, otaku — young men who obsess over pop culture and new technology — were seen as antisocial and immature. With his thousands of anime videotapes and manga, Miyazaki made otaku into pathetic pariahs, but only for a little while. Now, otaku comprise a viable and powerful market, and, with the subsequent emergence of the Internet and mobile communications, the term’s edges have blurred. In a sense, we’re all otaku now, which is why Kato’s case has been particularly unsettling. A lot of people not only sympathize with him, but have openly stated that they could see themselves falling apart in a similar manner.

What they identify with is Kato’s story, which is so shot full of cliches that anyone with a self-esteem ax to grind is bound to find something in common.

Pushed by parents to be an academic overachiever? Check. Acute resentments stemming from an inability to live up to such expectations? Check. Lack of direction following graduation? Check. Hopping from one dull, demeaning job to another? Check. Turning more introverted and antisocial as a result? Double check.

Moreover, because Kato journalized his tragic trajectory by posting his thoughts on Internet bulletin boards for the past several years, his story is there for all to see. These terse, dramatic dispatches formed the foundation of an hourlong special report about the case broadcast on NHK. As a narrative, the story is so seamless and predictable that it could have been produced by a Hollywood scriptwriter, and may explain why it faded so quickly. There is nothing more to add to the Kato file at this point. When the police release statements the suspect has made during interrogation, it turns out to be something we already know because he uploaded it on a BBS.

NHK did a survey on the Net and found that what people identified with most was Kato’s anxiety about the future and his utter loneliness. Like Kato, many of these respondents work temp-staff jobs that they believe are dead ends. The loneliness part is vaguer, but it should be noted that the reason Kato made so many BBS postings is that he felt he had no one to talk to. It was just him and his cell phone. Yuki Honda, an expert on the subject of youth malaise, told NHK that Kato represents what many young people have been feeling for years but were never able to verbalize. Like Kato they believe that society has no use for them, but in a sense they have no use for society, either, because they are unable to make human connections in the real world.

The Asahi and Aera articles imply that the recent rash of indiscriminate murders is fallout from the social and economic changes that Japan has undergone since the start of the Heisei Era (1989-). The rise of the nonpermanent workforce, for instance, was the result of the deregulation accomplished by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. They fail to point out their own role in these changes, however. One of the reasons Kato’s story is so familiar is that we’ve already read it many times in the weeklies and seen it on TV. In his most chilling BBS posting he stated he would kill people and, as a result, “dominate the wide shows.”

In a commentary in Shukan Kinyobi, Chinatsu Nakayama described the Akihabara killings as a form of chabudai-gaeshi, a term that refers to someone violently overturning the furniture during a temper tantrum. Society allows a man to believe he has the right to strut in public at least once in his life, she says, and denied that right he may find a way to bring it about in a big, terrible way. The Akihabara killer’s behavior was “transparently” influenced by the media, even down to the modus operandi. The 2-ton truck and the random stabbings have already been done, though not at the same time.

So the cliches keep piling up until they form a huge stinking mountain that people choose to live next to because they figure they can’t move it. NHK interviewed Shinya Izumi, the chief of the Public Security Investigation Agency, about the killings, and he commented that society seems to be “sick.” There’s nothing to do except come up with “countermeasures for these new types of crimes.”

Considered in this light, Hatoyama’s decision to sign Miyazaki’s execution order might indeed have been influenced by the Akihabara killings, but it probably had more to do with momentum than with any sort of cynical opportunism: We may not have the will to change society, but we still have the power to punish, so let’s not waste any more time. We have nothing to lose but our losers.