Until June 8, 2008, Hiroshi Yuasa led an ordinary life, one of thousands of taxi drivers who work Tokyo’s streets. But just after noon on that rainy Sunday, as shoppers thronged the streets of Akihabara, he witnessed an event that changed everything.
Sitting in his parked cab at the intersection of Kanda Myojin-dori and Chuo-dori, Yuasa watched in disbelief as a rental truck headed straight for a group of pedestrians.
“Honestly, my first thought was: ‘That’s a really awful driver,’ recalls the 56-year-old native of Miyazaki. “Then I realized that the truck was dodging cars and deliberately trying to hit people.”
Within seconds, the 2-ton truck mowed down five shoppers. Yuasa leaped from his cab and ran over to help one of the victims. “His face was already swelled horribly and strange fluid was leaking from his nose, ears and mouth. I knew he wasn’t going to make it.”
As he leaned over the dying man, Yuasa felt something bump into his back. He straightened up as his body filled with a sickening heat.
“I felt my heart beat so hard that my entire body shook,” he recalls. “I looked down and saw blood spurting out of my right side. I pressed the wound with my hand and elbow really hard.” When the ambulance came, he blacked out.
After emerging from a coma three days later, Yuasa learned that he had been stabbed by a man later identified as Tomohiro Kato, who goes on trial Thursday accused of murdering seven people and wounding 10 in one of Japan’s worst modern cases of indiscriminate murder.
Many victims are desperate to hear what Kato, 27, has to tell the Tokyo District Court about the attack, which he allegedly perpetrated because he was “tired of life.”
But Yuasa has already made a personal attempt to communicate with the man who also stands accused of almost killing him. At a recent gathering in Setagaya Ward, Yuasa came forward and talked about his experience and revealed his feelings as he prepared to face Kato’s trial.
Yuasa was lucky to survive: The divorced father of three lost several liters of blood when Kato’s knife punctured his lungs, liver and diaphragm. He spent 40 days in a hospital before returning to his cab — unsuccessfully. “I became tired quickly and suffered from headaches and excruciating pain.”
After four months, the discomfort forced him to quit and he reluctantly began drawing benefits. Unemployment gave him a lot of time to ponder what happened.
“I began thinking about that day: Seven people died, but I’m still alive. Why? I had to write him a letter and ask him why he decided to carry out this attack. I have to know Kato as a person — I don’t think the crime can be solved without knowing him. Learning about him would help solve my questions,” Yuasa said.
Yuasa was surprised to receive a polite, hand-written six-page reply from Kato, along with a shorter apology from the defendant’s parents. Apparently full of genuine remorse, Kato’s letter nevertheless attempts to explain the crime he has been accused of, and includes the claim that he was the victim of childhood parental abuse.
Kato said his mother has apologized for the abuse, an experience he described as “unpleasant” because it didn’t heal his pain and didn’t sound genuine. “And that’s why I fear that my apology would not be so pleasant to you,” he wrote.
“While my mother apologized, she also admitted that she had no memory of abusing me. When I think about what her apology meant, I could only think that she was only trying to protect herself and to live up to the reputation expected of her by society.”
In the letter to Yuasa, Kato traced his failures in life and his vertiginous descent into the insecure world of dispatch employment and despair on the pressures of high school, when his grades suddenly started deteriorating. But he insisted he was not trying to shirk responsibility.
“Media reports said that I blamed my parents, society and my environment for what I did. But I honestly don’t know where those reports came from. The crime I committed is all my responsibility and I can’t possibly blame it on others. I should accept all the blame.”
As he read the letter, Yuasa says, he was surprised to find himself partly sympathizing: “Parents shouldn’t force their children to do more than what they can do.” But he adds there are many others who have suffered worse ordeals and not ended up like Kato.
“I was born in the generation that detests blaming your bad luck on others,” says Yuasa, who previously worked as a chef, construction worker and truck driver. “I only had myself to plan what I had to do to survive. I knew I could find any job if I tried. But for now I’m thinking of relying on unemployment benefits paid by everyone else’s taxes so I can face Kato in the trial.”
Kato faces the gallows. That the attack was premeditated appears to have been established. In multiple blog postings from his cell phone before the rampage, he chillingly laid his plan bare. One entry famously said: “Will drive into (the crowd), and after the vehicle gets unusable, I’ll use the knife. Goodbye everyone.” Another said: “Even though the scale (of the massacre) is small, I’ll do what I decided to in the rain.”
In his letter to Yuasa, however, he appears to show genuine remorse. “The mistake I made was to have caused a great deal of pain to other people . . . and as a result of that, I changed their lives or ended their lives. Unlike me, who doesn’t really care what happens to myself, every one of those people had dreams and bright futures. I destroyed all of that.
“No matter how much I regret that, nothing will return to what it used to be, and I know I have done things that can’t be undone. It is frustrating that I can’t imagine the pain of people unjustly deprived of all of that because I don’t have any of it.”
Most remarkably of all for Yuasa, Kato appears to be committed to finding a way to end similar crimes.
“I know that I will be executed,” he writes. “But I want to explain everything in detail and without attitude. It is my responsibility and duty to you and to society.”
Yuasa says the man who almost killed him should pay the ultimate price — in the interests of justice for the victims, not personal revenge. But he also believes the government should be in no rush to hang Kato before understanding his tortured psyche.
“There have been similar crimes in the past. And although each one was resolved, similar crimes were repeated. That is because the truth has not been revealed,” he says.
“The death penalty is the act of killing someone and it would be better if there wasn’t such a system,” Yuasa continues. “But when you think of victims’ families, you have to ask for the most severe punishment there is. Lives are precious. I think about the victims mostly in their 20s whose futures could have been full of dreams and hopes.”
Kato writes that he has already contemplated his own death, and accepted it: “I hear that hanging takes about five minutes. In fact, I think one minute would be long enough to die. Compared with how much pain I caused you, it is so unfair. But I am determined to receive the sentence thinking of the lives I have taken from others and the weight of their happiness.”
Yuasa says he is still uncertain whether Kato is just trying to present himself as someone who regrets what he did and is showing remorse in a bid for leniency. But he hopes that as long as the accused continues to show remorse, there shouldn’t be a rush to hang him.
But he also knows that in reality, time is limited. “I plan to write a letter to Kato at least every month whether I get a response or not. As long as he is showing remorse, I want him to survive,” he says. “As the person who is closest to Kato right now, I think I can draw him out.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5