Latest Japan knife attack fuels concerns

TOKYO, Reuters

A woman wielding a knife burst into a Japanese kindergarten on Tuesday, injuring a female teacher and raising more concerns about violent crime just weeks after a mentally ill man stabbed eight schoolchildren to death.

This latest attack fuelled renewed concerns in Japan over rising violence in a nation long proud of its low crime rate.

The assault came less than two weeks after eight children were killed, and 13 students and two teachers wounded, when a former janitor with a history of mental illness walked through the open front gates of a prestigious elementary school mid-morning, entered classrooms and began stabbing children at random.

Police said that the assailant, apparently in her 50s, rushed through the gate of the Takachiho Kindergarten, a school run by a private university in Tokyo, and that one female teacher was slightly hurt.

The attacker, whose identity is unknown, is still on the run.

“This unexpected incident happened even though we had tightened security following the tragedy in Osaka,” said a spokesman for the kindergarten.

Warning that violent crime shows no sign of subsiding in Japan — long known as one of the safest countries in the world — experts blamed social, political and economic instability for the rising number of incidents.

“Socio-political and economic instability trigger psychological instability or uncertainty, and all this, I believe, is contributing a great deal to the rising brutal crime,” said Masao Omura, a criminal psychiatrist at Tokyo’s Nihon University. Omura said that a breakdown of traditional values, exacerbated by a decade of economic stagnation and rising unemployment, and combined with an increasingly fast-paced lifestyle, is also a major factor behind the rising crime rate.

“Japan is in a state of social breakdown,” he said.

This month’s fatal stabbing of eight schoolchildren exemplifies the recent increase in high-profile violent crime and incidents in which the safety of children has been threatened due to easy access to school premises. The incident is set to prompt a shaken Japan to stiffen its laws regarding crimes committed by the mentally ill, and to barricade schools, currently open to all.

Following the school massacre earlier this month in the western city of Osaka, Prime minister Joichiro Koizumi said that his government would lose no time in looking into changing the law.

Japanese media have zeroed in on the matter, noting that authorities face a delicate task in balancing the legal rights of mental patients and the protection of citizens’ safety.

Japan’s crime rate, still low by international standards, has been on the rise in recent years, and a series of violent crimes by minors have particularly shocked the public.

Laws relating to juvenile crime have already been tightened to allow suspects aged 14 and 15 to face public prosecution for serious crimes such as murder.

Police have also blamed foreigners for rising crime rates, while some human rights activists dispute the claim.

The number of senseless crimes, often committed by teenagers, has risen so sharply over the past few years that it has given rise to a new phrase: “Seventeen and deadly.” Last year, one 17-year-old boy bludgeoned passersby with a baseball bat in a trendy Tokyo shopping district after a fight with his father. Another beat his mother to death with a metal bat, and a third stabbed an elderly neighbor to death because he wanted to experience killing someone.

The crimes are not all committed by 17-year-olds, however. One of the grisliest recent incidents, the 1997 murder and beheading of an 11-year-old boy, was committed by a 14-year-old playmate.

More recently, there has been a wave of incidents on Tokyo’s crowded trains, including one in which a man was killed by fellow passengers enraged at his request that they step back so he could board.

School attacks have also been increasing. In 1999, a seven-year-old boy was murdered in a schoolyard by a young man who dashed in and stabbed him with a kitchen knife.