The murder of 19 residents of a facility for people with disabilities in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, last month instantly became headline news all over the world. The main reasons for the attention were the number of dead and the country where it took place — Japan is famous for its relatively low level of violent crime.
One aspect of the reaction contrasted greatly with that in Japan: Some people overseas described the murders as a “hate crime,” a term used only by a few local media and not by any Japanese public official.
The suspect, Satoshi Uematsu, has said his purpose was to eliminate disabled people from the world, and while he characterized his actions as a form of “mercy killing,” we tend to think of a hate crime as being carried out against someone because of who that person is, rather than what that person has done. More to the point, the residents were not randomly chosen, as were previous victims of mass murders in Japan. They were targeted because they had disabilities.
So even if the suspect didn’t “hate” the people he targeted in the way we normally use the word, his animus toward people with disabilities was real and deadly, and it’s only natural to try and figure out how he developed that feeling. It seems obvious the suspect suffers from some sort of pathology — he was institutionalized for a short period earlier this year — and several media have played up his use of drugs. He also worked at the facility he attacked, and, according to friends and associates, not to mention his private writings, advocated for eugenics, the practice of selective breeding in order to filter out “undesirable” genetic traits. One purpose of eugenics is to erase people with disabilities from society.
Thus there has been some controversy over the Kanagawa Prefectural Police’s decision to not disclose the names of the victims. Usually, the police always name murder victims, but, according to the Mainichi Shimbun, this time they decided not to since “the families feel that they don’t want the names released.”
There is only one way to interpret this one-off policy: Families of the victims don’t want the public to know that their loved ones have disabilities. On the surface, the move comes across as a means of protecting privacy, though it can also be seen as a way of keeping people with disabilities out of the public eye. The Sankei Shimbun reported that at least 10 disabled support groups signed a letter addressed to the Kanagawa police, objecting to its decision. One person with disabilities told the newspaper that she believed a friend of hers might have been a victim but couldn’t find out since names were not provided.
Shingo Mori was one of the 26 who survived the attack, and was close to death for several days with injuries to his chest and neck. Mori’s parents have allowed several media to publish photos of Shingo and their names in an attempt to make the public see that the victims had lives and were loved. Shingo’s mother, Etsuko, told the Asahi Shimbun that her son had been living in the Sagamihara facility for 20 years — he is now 51 — and during that time she and her husband “never told anyone about him,” even relatives. The tragedy “changed our minds.”
Several other families revealed their names and those of their children on a recent NHK Special, but they seem to be exceptions to the rule. An official of a “group home” for people with disabilities told the Asahi that most families want to hide their disabled children, even if those children — many of whom are adults — agree to having their names printed in newsletters and such. “Sometimes parents (of people with disabilities) are discriminated against,” the official said. “So I want to respect their privacy.”
This situation clearly reinforces the unspoken assumption that people with disabilities are marginal or, to people like Uematsu, useless members of society. Hiroko Miyake, who lives in a facility in Yokohama for people with developmental disabilities, told the Asahi that the victims were “people like me — they had goals and knew pleasure. I want the public to know about those aspects of their lives.”
Anti-poverty activist Karin Amamiya made this point in an essay for Tokyo Shimbun, calling out the “double standard” the media uses when reporting this sort of crime. She was bothered by the phrase “precious lives lost,” which all outlets included in their reports, because under normal circumstances the lives of people with disabilities are treated as being less than precious. She recalls her cousin, who had a learning disability, falling ill with an infection, but after her aunt summoned an ambulance the paramedics couldn’t find a hospital that would accept her because they thought they would be “unable to explain her condition to her.” Eventually, a hospital did accept her but it was too late. She died.
The belief that people with disabilities are not fully human is reinforced by people such as former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who in 1999, after visiting a facility for people with developmental disabilities, wondered out loud if such people possessed “personalities,” presaging Uematsu’s thesis; or Finance Minister Taro Aso, who has suggested that unproductive citizens may be better off dead.
“In our society,” wrote Amamiya, “these ‘precious lives’ are measured against their ‘cost'” and found to be wanting in the balance. Courts, when ruling on an injury or death lawsuit, determine damages in terms of “work lost.”
Takaaki Hattori, a professor of media studies, told the Sankei that the decision to disclose names is the job of the press, not the authorities. By not revealing the victims’ identities, the police are effectively denying that they ever existed. Yoshiro Ishihara, a Japanese prisoner of war in Siberia after World War II, once wrote that the most terrifying thing about genocide is the facelessness of the individual victims.
Uematsu, who admired Hitler, took this premise for granted when he wrote about his abominable project. If a person’s death has no special meaning, then their life didn’t either.