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On the evening of Oct. 31, 25-year-old Fukuoka native Kyota Hattori — wearing makeup and a purple and green ensemble to emulate the villainous Joker of “Batman” franchise fame — boarded a Keio Line train at Keio-Hachioji Station, heading for central Tokyo. After spending half an hour meandering around Shibuya, which was packed with costumed revelers feting Halloween, Hattori headed back toward Hachioji, but reversed direction again at Chofu, where he changed to a Shinjuku-bound limited express train.

Soon after the doors closed, according to eye witness reports, he removed a survival knife and liquids from a backpack. When a 72-year-old male passenger tried to intervene, Hattori allegedly stabbed the man and proceeded to pursue fleeing passengers, splashing them with lighter fluid, which he then ignited. The stabbing victim was hospitalized in a critical condition and 16 other passengers suffered burns and smoke inhalation.

Videos captured on smartphones showed desperate passengers struggling to squeeze out the train’s partially opened windows onto the platform of Kokuryo Station.

“I’d failed at work, my friendships didn’t work out and I wanted to die,” Shukan Jitsuwa (Nov. 25) reported Hattori as having told police. “Since I couldn’t die on my own, I wanted to carry out a mass murder on Halloween and get the death penalty.”

He had only a few thousand yen on his person at the time of his arrest, after reportedly telling his interrogators he had spent about ¥200,000 on his Joker costume.

Yukan Fuji (Nov. 12) categorized Hattori’s act as essentially a copycat crime, inspired by a similar rampage that occurred in August on an Odakyu Line train.

“Watching the news reports of other incidents may have created a sense of sympathy for the criminal, wanting to create a commotion themselves, or perhaps from a sense of frustration that they have beaten him to it,” explained Yasuyuki Deguchi, a professor of criminal psychology at Tokyo Future University. “Many people are usually not good at taking action on their own, and don’t consider the risk and cost of crime.”

One reason trains are being singled out for such acts is that they are “moving enclosed spaces,” so if the driver and conductor aren’t informed via emergency intercom that something has occurred, they can’t take action to halt the train and permit passengers to evacuate.

Then what can rail companies do, proactively, to protect their passengers?

Videos captured by smartphones show desperate passengers struggling to squeeze out the train's partially opened windows onto the platform of Kokuryo Station during the Oct. 31 attack. | KYODO
Videos captured by smartphones show desperate passengers struggling to squeeze out the train’s partially opened windows onto the platform of Kokuryo Station during the Oct. 31 attack. | KYODO

Toyo University criminologist Masayuki Kiriu told Aera (Nov. 15) that if the rail companies were to broadcast announcements — such as “Let’s be cautious so as not to be confronted by crime” — over the trains’ public address systems, it may deter potential criminals.

Increased passenger alertness is also desirable. Kiriu was critical of people’s habitual gazing at their smartphones, which distracts them from awareness of their surroundings.

“How about rail companies appealing to passengers directly, using visual images or messages?” he suggested. “I think it might prove beneficial as symptomatic treatment (i.e., therapy that eases the symptoms without addressing the basic cause of a condition).

In the most extreme cases, however, passengers may be forced to defend themselves. Takeshi Nishio, chief instructor in the Israeli unarmed combat skill of Krav Maga at the MagaGYMs in Akasaka and Roppongi, pointed out that even the tip of a closed umbrella can be aimed at an assailant’s throat or eye, or used to strike the wrist of a person brandishing a knife. Flinging keys or a smartphone into an attacker’s face can also be effective.

Nikkan Gendai (Nov. 18) believes the day may be approaching when artificial intelligence can be harnessed to protect the public from random assailants.

A Tokyo-based company named Earth Eyes already markets systems aimed at shoplifters. NEC Corp.’s facial recognition technology, in addition to identifying wanted criminals from a database, can be tweaked to spot other suspicious behavior patterns, such as loitering, particularly for long periods, shuffling through a crowd or standing in place. Likewise NTT Docomo has been collaborating with Fujitsu to develop a security system.

Other suspicious behavior might include carrying a bag or shouldering a backpack (which might be used to carry weapons), wearing a face mask (obviously negated during the current pandemic) or headwear, and running shoes (“They’re preferred over street shoes or sandals if somebody might need to make a quick getaway”).

It’s hypothetical of course, but had an AI system been in place, the Kyoto Animation arson attack in July 2019 — the largest mass murder in Japan’s modern history, with 36 people killed and another 34 injured — might have been thwarted. Perpetrators are known to carefully determine the time and place of the crime beforehand, so observing passers-by might have prevented the crime. (The attacker had been seen prowling near the building several days before the incident, walking between parked cars for no apparent reason.)

While most news outlets expressed outrage, a few articles balanced their reports with a degree of empathy toward Hattori, describing him as a himote otoko (an unpopular man) — a term that has parallels in the “incels” (“involuntary celibate” males) who inhabit the web.

In a story titled “The criminal on the Keio Line attack was a monster created by a disparate society,” Jitsuwa Bunka Taboo (January) identified such random attackers as single males, many coming from impoverished families, who work at irregular jobs in the service industry, typically at wages so low that even if they live with their families they are unable to save money. Others, once being rejected by a girlfriend, never recover their mental equilibrium.

“In such a situation,” Jitsuwa Bunka Taboo’s writer concludes, “we don’t know when another Hattori-like character will attempt to kill again. We need to build a society in which even ‘losers’ and unpopular people can live happily in their own way, as opposed to one where the winners get everything. That will be the only way to ensure we can live in safety.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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