Society failed to save Uemura

The murder of a 13-year-old boy in Kawasaki leaves many people wondering why his life could not have been saved, especially given the fact that he had been previously assaulted by the suspected killer and that the police were aware of it. Educators, local government officials and police officers need to reflect deeply about what could have been done to prevent Uemura’s death, and what must be done to prevent similar crimes in the future.

The body of Ryota Uemura was found naked on the bank of Tama River on Feb. 20, with multiple knife wounds in the neck and other areas. Traces of his burned clothing were found nearby. A week later, police arrested an 18-year-old boy, who is believed to be the principal offender, and two 17-year-olds.

It is difficult to understand how the reported motive of the suspected killer — his anger that Uemura had told friends that he had assaulted him — could have led him to commit such a savage act. The police should study the psychology of the main suspect and probe the relationships among the victim, the suspects and other people concerned. Police officers and teachers must also scrutinize the actions they took when they learned earlier this year that Uemura was experiencing problems at school and with the 18-year-old boy.

Together with his mother and four siblings, Uemura moved to Kawasaki in 2013 from the Oki Islands in Shimane Prefecture. Although he joined his junior high school’s basketball club, he stopped participating last summer. He is said to have first met the 18-year-old boy in December in a local game arcade and started to hang out with the boy’s group. When winter vacation ended, he failed to return to school.

The police first became aware of the violence that Uemura suffered at the hands of the 18-year-old boy in February. After he punched Uemura on the face in mid-January, some of Uemura’s friends went to the 18-year-old boy’s home on Feb. 12 to complain. The 18-year-old boy’s mother and elder sister then alerted the police and an officer went to their home. From there the officer telephoned Uemura but he reportedly did not confirm Uemura’s name and did not take any action after Uemura said he was OK.

Around this time Uemura reportedly became frightened by the violence and started to tell friends that he wanted to leave the group. Uemura’s homeroom teacher reportedly called Uemura or his mother a total of 34 times, but was only able to talk to Uemura once, on Feb. 16. At that time he told her that it could be time for him to resume going to school. The teacher also visited his home five times but was unable to meet him.

The actions of the police and school authorities raise many questions. Why didn’t the school authorities take action immediately after Uemura stopped attending school? Why didn’t it occur to teachers at the school that they should talk with Uemura’s classmates and friends, and strongly involve the board of education in efforts to find out why he was truant? If they had done so, they might been able to help him. Kawasaki has a school social worker in each of its seven wards to help students suffering from bullying and abuse, but it appears that the social worker wasn’t involved in this case.

In addition, why didn’t the police take stronger action against the 18-year-old boy after they learned that he had assaulted Uemura? They shouldn’t have taken Uemura — a frightened 13-year-old boy — at his word that he was “OK” and dropped their investigation. The Kawasaki municipal government and the police should carry out thorough examination of the actions of both teachers and police officers in Uemura’s murder.

This tragic case also makes it clear that parents should make daily efforts to have candid conversation with their children. This kind of close communication will enable them to detect if their children have become involved in troubling situations before they lead to more serious problems.