School slayings traumatize Japan

IKEDA, Japan, Reuters

A stunned Japan, its myth of safety in tatters, was searching for answers on Saturday to the brutal slaying of eight school children by a former janitor with a history of mental illness and an apparent death wish.

Thirteen students and two teachers were also wounded when the former mental patient calmly walked through the open front gates of the prestigious elementary school at mid-morning on Friday, entered the classroom and began stabbing children at random.

It was the nation’s worst mass-killing since the 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo subways by the Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) cult, which left 12 dead and thousands ill.

Japan has been hit by a rise in high-profile violent crimes, many committed by teenagers, as well as an increase in incidents in which students’ safety has been threatened when strangers easily gained access to school premises.

Friday’s victims — seven girls and one boy — were mainly seven- and eight-year-old pupils at the school in Ikeda, a suburb of the western city of Osaka, Japan’s second largest metropolitan area.

The 37-year-old alleged assailant is being held in police custody.

On Saturday evening, the first wakes were held for the young victims ahead of Buddhist funerals to take place on Sunday.

At the wake for the only boy killed, Takahiro Totsuka, 6, some 30 classmates, most dressed in their school uniforms, paid their respects. While many of their mothers were in tears, the children showed little emotion as they emerged from the funeral home.

Throughout the day, residents came to the school’s front gates to lay flowers, light incense and pray for the souls of those slain in the 10-minute rampage.

“My daughter said she wanted to give flowers,” said Kaori Yasunaga, whose daughter walked to school with one of the murdered girls on the tragic day.

“She is confused and sometimes says that she doesn’t want to go back to school.”

Education Vice-Minister Fumio Kishida said at a news conference near the school the government would launch a safety survey of all elementary and junior high schools in the nation, an estimated 36,000.

He also said that the Ikeda school would hire security guards for its re-opening, which has not yet been set.

The picture that has emerged of the alleged assailant, Mamoru Takuma is one that has become familiar in such crimes: a history of mental illness, previous run-ins with the police and a wish to do something that will end in the person’s own death.

Japanese media took the rare step of identifying him, breaking their own rules that prevent naming anyone accused of a crime who has a history of psychiatric troubles.

Police said that he had undergone treatment for schizophrenia and had told them that on the day of the incident he had taken 10 times his usual dosage of anti depressants.

Takuma might not have even been at large if not for his mental problems. He had previously been arrested for allegedly putting tranquilizers in tea he gave to teachers at a school where he worked as a janitor.

He was not brought to trial because of his mental illness and instead was hospitalized and then released.

He had been in trouble with police over other incidents, and the Kyodo news agency said on Saturday that Takuma had been told to report to prosecutors on the Friday over allegedly assaulting a man at a hotel while working as a taxi driver.

Police said Takuma told them he wanted to suffer the death penalty for his crime.