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Sunday’s stabbing rampage on a Tokyo train by a man dressed up as the Joker from the "Batman" franchise was a sobering reminder of how vulnerable trains and subways are to violent, indiscriminate attacks in a metropolis heavily reliant on public transportation.

The incident, in which the assailant brandished what appeared to be a kitchen knife and set fire to cars on a Keio Line train on Halloween night, left 17 passengers injured. One of them, a man in his 70s, was in critical condition after reportedly being stabbed in the chest. After assaulting the man, the assailant, identified as 24-year-old Kyota Hattori, went on to scatter flammable fluid and burn a seat, causing the train to fill with smoke.

Hattori was arrested at the scene for attempted murder. He later told investigators that his motive was to “sentence himself to death” by killing two or more people.

According to the police, a seemingly unrepentant Hattori said he was “disappointed that I couldn’t follow through on my plan to commit murder,” offering no words of apology. He said he started harboring a death wish in around June and July after both his professional and private lives, including his relationships with friends, went awry.

Hattori's account paints a picture of a premeditated, meticulously thought-out attack. He said he made a point of targeting a “crowded train with few stops” where “people can’t run away.”

He also admitted to having been inspired by a similar stabbing spree in August on an Odakyu Electric Railway commuter train that led to the injury of 10 passengers. The incident, in which a woman in her 20s was severely wounded, took place despite heightened security for the Tokyo Olympics.

Hattori said he prepared for his attack based on news reports about the Odakyu incident, according to police.

A photo posted on Twitter shows Kyota Hattori, the suspect in stabbing and arson attack on a Keio Line train Sunday night, wearing what appears to be a Joker costume. | KYODO
A photo posted on Twitter shows Kyota Hattori, the suspect in stabbing and arson attack on a Keio Line train Sunday night, wearing what appears to be a Joker costume. | KYODO

Photos and videos of the incident went viral on social media, sending shock waves and triggering a flurry of breaking news alerts just as results from Sunday’s general election were starting to pour in.

Panicked passengers were filmed climbing out of train windows to escape, while Hattori — clad in a costume resembling the Joker, a villain from "Batman" — was shown calmly seated inside the train smoking a cigarette after his attack. Two hours prior to the incident, Hattori had joined other Halloween revelers in Shibuya, Tokyo's bustling mecca of pop culture, police said.

Deadly indiscriminate attacks are still a rare occurrence in Japan, where gun ownership is strictly controlled. But recent years have seen Japan’s railway hubs fall prey to a string of violent stabbing sprees, illustrating their susceptibility to acts of terrorism and the dearth of preventive measures train operators have at their disposal.

Prior to the Odakyu Line attack in August, there had been a case in 2018 where a machete-wielding man wounded two passengers and fatally stabbed another while aboard a shinkansen run by Central Japan Railway Co. In 2015, meanwhile, a man doused himself with gasoline and self-immolated on a JR Central bullet train, killing a woman as a result and leaving 28 injured when including damage caused by smoke inhalation.

The attacks have highlighted the need for ramped-up precautions and measures against armed individuals. But because trains are deeply intertwined with the daily lives of many people, especially those in urban areas, rigorous and painstaking security screenings at railway stations would run counter to the need for efficiency and convenience.

While there is a limit to what can be done, steps have been taken, however.

In June, ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the transport ministry revised the ministerial ordinance to enable railway operators to conduct baggage checks on passengers. Under the revision, those who refuse to cooperate with an inspection will be asked to leave the premises.

A photo supplied by a passenger shows people running away from a fire inside a Keio Line train at Kokuryo Station in Tokyo on Sunday night following a stabbing and arson attack on board. | KYODO
A photo supplied by a passenger shows people running away from a fire inside a Keio Line train at Kokuryo Station in Tokyo on Sunday night following a stabbing and arson attack on board. | KYODO

Following the Odakyu Line stabbing rampage, the ministry compiled a batch of anti-violence policies in September that included a more visible security presence within stations and strengthened cooperation between railway operators and police forces.

The ministry also said it will consider applying cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology to the analysis of security camera footage to better detect suspicious individuals. Another key point was to use pictograms to raise awareness of existing emergency alarms within trains that passengers can use to alert train crews.

The fatal shinkansen stabbing in 2018 prompted railway firms to ratchet up their security measures, too.

Companies such as East Japan Railway Co. and JR Central have since taken steps to install shinkansen with items such as shields, self-defense poles, tear gas sprays and anti-knife gloves and vests for crew members to use in case of an emergency. These are now also in place at major stations stopped at by shinkansen and conventional trains.

One possible countermeasure is to boost the number of security personnel tasked with patrolling trains, railway analyst Itsuki Nishiue said.

In response to the 2018 stabbing, security guards are now posted on all bullet trains run by JR Central. The analyst said similar measures could be a possibility for the conventional trains that crisscross the capital, although the hurdles to introducing them remain high.

“Given the huge number of trains operated each day and the crowded status of rush-hour trains, it’s easier said than done” to have security on standby, Nishiue said. “Moreover, train operators have been hit hard by the pandemic and are financially struggling, so naturally there’s the question of how to fund these additional human resources,” he said.

Firefighters gather for a rescue operation at Keio Line's Kokuryo Station in Tokyo on Sunday night following a stabbing and arson attack on board a train. | KYODO
Firefighters gather for a rescue operation at Keio Line’s Kokuryo Station in Tokyo on Sunday night following a stabbing and arson attack on board a train. | KYODO

Likewise, the idea of having passengers go through baggage checks at stations isn’t especially realistic, with Japan boasting a significant number of passengers and commuters dependent on trains and subways. According to Tokyo Metro Co. data, more than 7 million people were using its subway network each day before the pandemic.

“It’s true that there is a vast number of people using trains in Japan, but the incident on Sunday may be a signal that we are now at a stage where we need to come up with some measures, including simple baggage inspections, to achieve the safety of railways even at the expense of their convenience,” Nishiue said.

Information from Kyodo added

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