The Tokyo District Court on March 24 sentenced a 28-year-old former temporary worker to death for indiscriminately attacking and killing pedestrians in June 2008 in Akihabara, a popular shopping and tourist district in Tokyo packed with stores selling electronics goods, anime and other pop-culture products. Seven people were killed and 10 others were injured in an atrocious act that shocked the nation.

What led the defendant, Tomohiro Kato, to commit such a crime greatly puzzled survivors of the attack, relatives of the murder victims and ordinary citizens. The fact that he gave advance notice of his intention to commit the crime via a mobile-phone bulletin board and that he stated after his arrest that he had not cared whom he attacked also caused a sensation. Although the court sentenced Kato to hang, the trial failed to uncover a convincing motive behind the crime.

Around 12:30 p.m. on June 8, 2008, the defendant drove a two-ton truck into a crowd of pedestrians at an intersection in Akihabara, killing three and injuring two. He then exited the vehicle and, armed with a dagger, fatally stabbed four people and injured eight others. He attacked a police officer but failed to injure him. The crime happened on a day when people thronged Akihabara’s main avenue, which at the time was a pedestrian-only zone on Sundays and holidays.

The incident spurred several social changes. The Firearms and Swords Control Law was revised to prohibit the possession of daggers and possession of knives with 5.5 cm or longer blades. The pedestrian-only zone in Akihabara was suspended for more than two years, only resuming on a temporary basis in January on Sundays.

In the first hearing of the trial in January 2010, Kato accepted all the facts that the prosecution presented. He said, “I am the criminal. There is no room to doubt that I was responsible for the incident.”

The remaining contentious point in the trial was whether he was mentally competent at the time of his rampage. His defense counsel sought leniency by saying that at the time of the crime he had a diminished mental state. The court said that the fact that the defendant planned the crime and carried it out pointed to no diminishment of his mental state.

The trial focused on determining the motive for the crime. The defendant stated that the bulletin board was the only place where he felt he belonged. He posted numerous messages complaining about his job, his inferiority complex about his appearance and his inability to find a girlfriend. The prosecution regarded his unstable job situation, his inferiority complex about his appearance and his inability to find a girlfriend as auxiliary motives for his deadly act.

During the trial, the defendant explained his motive by stating he felt that the family-like connections he had established with other people via the bulletin board was destroyed because some users, sometimes posing as him, posted messages that sabotaged the friendly atmosphere of the online venue. He said that the crime was aimed at stopping people from posting messages that caused him stress. He reasoned that if they knew he had committed a horrendous crime, they would stop their abhorrent behavior on the bulletin board.

In its ruling, the court decided that the bulletin board harassment was the main motive behind the crime. It also said that he vented his anger about the disappearance of his work clothes, and that he suffered alienation because of a loss of family members, friends and his job.

Importantly, the ruling stated that the defendant’s stated motive should not have led to him to carry out such an atrocity, although the court acknowledged that in the mind of the defendant his stated motive may have served as sufficient cause.

Although the defendant may believe that he gave a persuasive explanation for his motive for the attack, survivors and relatives of the victims are at a loss as to why they have had to suffer from such a senseless act. Some of them suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder.

But attributing the crime solely to Kato’s character may be missing the point in understanding his offense. Together with Japan’s unstable employment situation, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the overall weakening of human relations in society, the advancement of information technology tends to create a “virtual world” in which people who are insecure about themselves seek a haven. Kato may have been such a person.

How and where to obtain the courage to live in the real world and establish meaningful human relations are big questions facing all members of society. Some individuals, such as Kato, are apparently unable to find proper solutions.

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