National / Crime & Legal

Suspect admits to grisly 2016 Sagamihara care home murders as trial opens

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI

The man accused of the grisly murders in 2016 of 19 people with disabilities at a care home in the city of Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, admitted to the killings at the opening of his lay judge trial Wednesday, but his defense team insisted he was mentally incompetent and not criminally responsible for his actions.

Satoshi Uematsu, 29, admitted to the charges against him at his first hearing at the Yokohama District Court over the stabbing rampage — one of Japan’s worst mass killings. But the trial was adjourned soon after it began as Uematsu started behaving oddly.

After prosecutors read out the charges, the judge asked Uematsu, “Is there anything in the charges that differs from the facts?”

“No there isn’t,” Uematsu replied, dressed in a navy suit with a tie and white shirt, his hair in a ponytail.

Uematsu voiced his “deep apologies to everyone” but then started shaking violently and was restrained, prompting the hearing to be suspended.

Before the court was adjourned, his lawyers argued that he is not guilty on grounds of diminished capacity. They claimed that he had been unable to tell right from wrong at the time of the attack because he was on drugs. A test following his arrest reportedly showed traces of marijuana in his system.

The trial resumed in the afternoon without Uematsu in attendance.

A former employee of the facility, Uematsu reportedly said he wanted to eradicate all disabled people in the July 26 attack at the Tsukui Yamayuri En center outside Tokyo.

The 29-year-old is accused of breaking into the premises and moving from room to room, searching for victims. Nineteen people were killed and 26, including two employees, were injured — half of them seriously.

He turned himself in at a police station, carrying bloodied knives and admitting the attack to officers.

It emerged later that Uematsu had left his job at the home just months before and had been forcibly hospitalized after telling colleagues he intended to kill disabled people at the center.

But he was discharged after 12 days when a doctor deemed him not a threat.

He faces six charges, including murder, and a possible death penalty if convicted on some of the counts.

Since his arrest, Uematsu has shown no remorse and continued to espouse the views that apparently motivated the attack.

In interviews with the Mainichi Shimbun, he said those with mental disabilities “have no heart,” claiming “there’s no point in living” for them.

“I had to do it for the sake of society,” he said of the attack.

“I don’t think I’m innocent, but it wasn’t something punishable by death.”

During an interview with Kyodo News last month, Uematsu said he continues to believe that “those who have disabilities severe enough to prevent communication are not people.” He also said they bring “misfortune” and are “harmful.”

In a recent interview with the Jiji Press agency, Uematsu said he would not deny in court having carried out the attack.

“It’s depressing,” he said. “It’s like going there to get insulted.”

And he appeared to take pride in the devastating rampage.

“I did my best,” he told Jiji.

Uematsu’s self-styled mission to rid the country of people with disabilities shocked Japan, with experts and activists raising questions about whether others in the country might hold similar views.

Japan has been making efforts to increase accessibility — particularly in Tokyo ahead of this year’s Paralympic Games — and activists hailed last year’s election of two disabled lawmakers.

But some critics feel the country still falls short at fully including those with disabilities, and the government last year was forced to admit that data on hiring people with disabilities had been padded to meet quotas.

Uematsu appeared to have been open about his prejudices well before the attack, even delivering a letter to the speaker of the Lower House in which he threatened to kill hundreds of disabled people.

The letter reportedly clearly outlined a plan for nighttime attacks against Tsukui Yamayuri En and another facility.

In the rambling letter, he presented a vision of a society in which those with serious disabilities could be euthanized with the approval of family members, since “handicapped people only create unhappiness.”

Japan has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the developed world, and the attack ranks among its worst ever.

At the time, it was the deadliest since 1938, when a man armed with an ax, sword and rifle went on a rampage that killed 30 people.

In 2019 an arson attack at a building belonging to the Kyoto Animation studio killed at least 36 people.

The court is expected to hand down a verdict against Uematsu on March 16.

Expert opinions on his mental competency are expected to be the focus of his trial.

He was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder through a forensic mental health assessment during the investigation, leading prosecutors to judge that he can be fully held criminally responsible.

During the hearing, special measures were taken to protect the anonymity of victims’ family members, with partitions surrounding the section where they were sitting. The criminal procedure law allows victims confidentiality during trials upon their request.