OSAKA — Following the massacre of eight children in June 2001 at Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka Prefecture, the victims’ parents found empathy and understanding from across the Pacific.
It came from the families of those who were murdered at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., two years earlier.
Now that Mamoru Takuma has been sentenced to death over the murders, however, the Ikeda families hope to reach out themselves.
They want to learn how the parents of Columbine turned their anger and grief into practical grassroots activism, and they hope to eventually get the Japanese government to place more emphasis on school security.
“After the verdict against Takuma came down on Aug. 28, my wife and I went home and asked ourselves, ‘What next?’ ” said Hajime Sakai, whose daughter Maki was one of those killed on June 8, 2001. “When we visited Colorado in 2002, I saw the Columbine parents answered this question by working to educate others on what they had been through and to push for tougher gun laws to prevent another massacre.”
A major problem with ordinary Japanese pushing for better security at schools, Sakai noted, is a lack of communication between the relevant bureaucrats.
“In Japan, the laws, and the structures of the bureaucracy, mean that the National Police Agency and the education ministry do not communicate with each other. Introducing changes to get them to cooperate on something like school security is extremely difficult,” he said.
Lack of communication is a problem with which Dawn Anna is very familiar.
Anna’s daughter Lauren was killed on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School, when two students shot to death 12 students and one teacher, before killing themselves.
During the Sakais’ visit to Columbine, the two families exchanged photos of their daughters and have since kept each other updated on developments.
“Before the shootings, there was a lack of communication between the parents, teachers and students at Columbine,” Anna said. “Everybody was in their own little group and didn’t see, or didn’t want to see, that the two killers were troubled.”
Since the Columbine massacre, Anna has worked with other bereaved parents to curb the proliferation of guns.
She has spoken throughout the United States on the subjects of school violence and gun control, addressed 850,000 people at a rally in Washington and lobbied both then President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for tougher gun laws.
While she says she often receives support elsewhere, her own state has been less enthusiastic on the issue of tougher gun laws.
“In Colorado, there was a rush of sympathy for the victims after the shooting. But when we tried to get people here to think about the banning of guns, the discussions tended to fizzle out,” she said. “Part of the reason is that the National Rifle Association has a huge amount of money that they use to oppose gun legislation. And only a few local media consistently attempt to come out strongly for tough gun control.”
Now that the verdict against Takuma has been handed down, the Ikeda families worry that the sympathy displayed by the government, media, and public in the wake of the killings will evaporate if they push for a nationwide effort to tighten school security.
“Government officials have made speeches to the Ikeda families about the importance of public safety,” said Keiichi Yamashita, whose daughter Rena was murdered by Takuma. “But a lot of it is lip service with no substance. Officials still believe that another Ikeda can’t happen anywhere else in Japan.”
To keep the issue in the public eye and to press the central government for better security nationwide, Yamashita, Sakai and the other Ikeda families are now discussing the possibility of holding a symposium, or a series of symposiums, and inviting Anna and other parents of the Columbine massacre to Japan to discuss their experiences.
Anna said that she, for one, is receptive to the idea.
Takuma’s lawyers have until midnight Sept. 12 to file an appeal against the district court ruling. Sakai and Yamashita said if the case goes to the Osaka High Court, they may consider postponing any symposium.
“If such an appeal is filed, and granted, it would mean the families would once again have to go through the wrenching process of a trial,” Sakai said. “But, regardless, we do need to think about what we can do to make sure another Ikeda, and another Columbine, does not happen.”