Mitake, a tiny mountain hamlet located in eastern Yamaguchi Prefecture, is administrated as part of the city of Shunan (pop. 150,000). The area is so remote, cell phones don’t always receive signals there.

On the night of July 21, according to news reports, two houses were completely destroyed by fire. Inside were the bodies of three elderly people, two women and a man. By noon of July 22, two more hamlet residents, one male and one female, were found murdered. Investigators said all five appeared to have been killed by a blunt instrument, with kerosene used to commit arson. The five victims’ ages ranged from 71 to 80.

Soon after the crimes, some 400 policemen mounted a search for suspect Kosei Homi, a 63-year-old handyman who disappeared following the killings.

Earlier Homi had posted on the side of his house, in brush calligraphy, a haiku that read, somewhat ominously: Tsukebi shite / kemuri yorokobu / inaka-mono (Setting on fire / smoke gives delight / to a country fellow).

On July 26, police found Homi on an animal trail about a kilometer from the crime scene. He had apparently consumed no food or drink in the five days since the killings, and once inside the police station wolfed down several boxed meals in succession.

In his youth, Homi had left the hamlet to work at construction jobs in Hiroshima and Kawasaki but returned to Mitake while in his 40s to care for his aging parents.

After the death of his parents, Homi remained in the hamlet. A big man who stands about 180 cm tall, he regularly bullied the hamlet’s other residents. “He affected the flamboyant style of a professional wrestler, driving around in a big car and then challenging people who looked at him, saying, ‘What the hell are you staring at?’ ” one of them told Shukan Asahi (Aug. 9). “And if you didn’t reply he’d threaten to toss you in the river. When you encountered him afterward he’d say, ‘Next time it’ll be oceans of blood. I’ll fling you down into hell!’

“And as it turned out, that’s what happened here,” the resident shuddered.

A police source was quoted as saying Homi has admitted to killing the five, but refrained from discussing his motives.

The media has dubbed the Mitake incident “Heisei no Yatsuhaka Mura” (the Heisei-era version of the Village of Eight Gravestones). “Yatsuhaka Mura” is the title of a famous horror novel by author Seishi Yokomizo about a family curse, which was serialized in a magazine from 1949-51.

Yokomizo’s novel was inspired by a real story, about Japan’s worst mass murder in modern times. In that incident, which occurred in 1938 in a small mountain hamlet near Tsuyama, Okayama Prefecture, a 21-year-old man named Mutsuo Toi wiped out six entire households.

Toi suffered from tuberculosis (which had also killed both of his parents when he was only 2 years old), making him exempt from the military draft. For whatever reasons, his neighbors gave him the cold shoulder. When Toi began frequently taking target practice with a shotgun, they began to worry, and conveyed concerns for their safety to the police. Summoned to the police substation, Toi feigned cooperation and agreed to turn in his shotgun; but he’d already made arrangements to obtain a weapon better suited to his murderous plans, which came to fruition in the early hours of May 21, 1938.

Toi decapitated his own grandmother using an axe and then, armed with a shotgun and a Japanese sword, systematically murdered 28 more men, women and children before finally turning the shotgun on himself.

“I cried for having few close relatives who could love me,” read his suicide note, according to Akira Tsukuba’s 1981 book “Tsuyama Sanjunin-goroshi” (“The 30 Killings of Tsuyama”). “Being weak and unfortunate in this life, I hope I will be strong and happy in the next one.”

The Japanese word meaning to ostracize someone is mura-hachibu. The term dates back to when the head of a mura (village) had the power to exclude incorrigible residents from normal social intercourse — although they were still assisted if their house caught fire. It was only several years ago that a court ruled this old practice carried no legal authority. But like last month’s Mitake incident, or the Tsuyama incident of 1938, we are reminded that even in pastoral surroundings, when people don’t fit in and are shunned from their circle of human contacts, the deep-seated enkon (grudges) they harbor can give rise to shocking acts of violence.

In Nikkan Gendai (July 30), crime reporter Atsushi Mizoguchi points out that such “bound communities,” whose residents have few ties to outsiders, also have modern-day equivalents in urban areas. He cited a survey in which 17 percent of men age 65 and over said they had the opportunity to speak with another person less than once every two weeks.

For factors that may be organic, social or perhaps both, one thing’s clear: Older people are becoming more violent. According to the most recent Police White Paper, incidences of violence by the elderly resulting in death or serious injury have risen nearly fiftyfold over the past two decades.

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