Editorials

Coming to terms with what's behind the Sagamihara killings

The ongoing trial of Satoshi Uematsu, accused of killing 19 people and injuring many others at a care home for people with mental disabilities in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, in July 2016, should provide an opportunity for all of us to reflect on whether he is alone in judging the value of other people’s lives based on how useful or productive they are to society.

Until just a quarter century ago, this country had a law that authorized the forced sterilization of people with mental disabilities in order to prevent the birth of “eugenically inferior” offspring, and it was only last year that a compensation program was legislated for the victims and they were offered a government apology. Discrimination against people with disabilities remains deeply rooted in our society. Instead of only highlighting the accused’s distorted — and despicable — views toward his victims, we should think hard about whether society at large shares any of his ideas behind the grisly murders.

Since surrendering himself to police after the fatal knife rampage against the care home residents four years ago, Uematsu, a former employee of the facility, has insisted that he killed the victims to do good for society as people with heavy disabilities are useless and only bring misfortune, and thus should be euthanized. He has reiterated similar arguments in the trial that opened last month. He claims he is mentally competent to stand trial, rebuffing the plea of innocence on grounds of insanity made by his own lawyers.

It would be easy to dismiss his words as the twisted view of a mass murderer trying to justify his crime. But a large number of messages posted online since the murders have reportedly expressed support for his views— an indication that popular prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities linger on. The lay judge trial at the Yokohama District Court, which is scheduled to hand down its ruling in mid-March, needs to explore how Uematsu came to embrace his distorted way of thinking. And we must ponder what can be done for society as a whole to reject such a view.

It was only in 1996 that the Eugenics Protection Law — which authorized the sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses and hereditary diseases, even without the consent of the people undergoing the operations — was abolished. In the nearly half century since the law was enacted in 1948, operations were performed on a total of some 25,000 people — at least 16,500 of them against their will. But it then took more than 20 years for the state to provide relief and an apology for the victims, who were deprived by government policy of their right to have children.

Even today, there remains a way of thinking that judges people and their value on the basis of whether they are productive and useful to society. People supporting victims of the Eugenics Protection Law as well as former Hansen’s disease patients, who were subjected to forced segregation for decades without medical grounds, say they are the victims of a misguided government policy that sought to exclude people whose presence was inconvenient to society. Behind the murders at the Sagamihara care home, they charge, is the eugenics beliefs that the government spread through its policies and failed to eradicate even after relevant laws were scrapped.

Just before the murders took place in 2016, legislation was enacted that prohibited discrimination by government offices and private businesses against people with disabilities. In a Cabinet Office survey taken the following year, however, more than 80 percent of the respondents said they believe that such discrimination and prejudice persist in society. Plans to build care facilities for people with intellectual/mental disabilities often face opposition from neighboring residents, with some of them eventually being canceled as a result. The fact that most of the victims of the 2016 murders at the Sagamihara care home are being kept anonymous in the trial is yet another reminder of the distorted views that all too many people hold toward the disabled and their families.

To help prevent a recurrence of abhorrent crimes against people with disabilities, society as a whole needs to come to grips with the widespread prejudice and discrimination against such people, and take steps to amend the situation.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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