Monday, June 9, 2008

Akihabara Stabbings

News of the stabbing spree in Japan on June 8th has really left me disturbed and I can't seem to get it out of my head. Part of it is just the sheer horror of it - imagine having a car drive into a crowd where you're shopping, and the driver get out and just start stabbing people at random. I think what bothers me more though, is this is not an isolated incident in Japan.

Now, I'm not remotely an expert on Japan, their psychology or culture. I lived and worked there as an English teacher right after college, and my opinions on this matter are drawn off of that. I remember my first week teaching in a public Japanese middle school. Instead of a fire drill or tornado drill, they had what I called the "Knife Wielding Psycho Drill." It was shocking. We teachers were instructed to lock down the kids in their classrooms. We had to block to the door and windows with desks, bookcases - anything we could find to keep someone from coming in. The kids were supposed to get creative in their hiding places - in coat closets, under desks. Then, the school principal ran down the hallways, brandishing a ruler, trying to get into the classrooms. At the time, I actually thought it was pretty funny. I mean, who does that? It's one things to usher American high school students into the gym over a phony bomb threat. It's another to see the principal pretending to be a crazed slasher.

Turns out, those drills exist for a reason. In 2001, a former janitor entered an Osaka, Japan elementary school and started stabbing. He killed 8 students and wounded many more students and teachers. In 1997, a 14 year old boy beat to death a 10 year old girl, as well as killed and decapitated an 11 year old boy (he placed the 11 year old's head on the top of the school gate with a note stuffed inside the mouth warning of more attacks to come). While I was living and teaching in Japan in 2004, an 11 year old girl murdered a female classmate during school hours over some messages posted on the internet

I don't have a solution. It blows my mind that such a low-crime country have produce crimes like this. They don't tend to have your run-of-the-mill American crimes like carjacking, rob a liquor store to support your drug habit, etc. They detonate serin gas on subways and slash elementary school kids to death. Until their society as a whole comes up with a better way to deal with those facing despair, mental illness, rejection by society, conflict...whatever you'd like to call it (one of my former colleagues in Japan called people like that "sad at heart"), events like this are going to become more and more common place. Actually, I think by the time these problems come to a head, it's too late. It's something in the culture that produces this kind of crime - is it the pressure to conform, pressure to internalize the pain and never show it, or the pressure to succeed? Are movies like Battle Royale (バトル・ロワイアル Batoru Rowaiaru) and violent cartoon "Ero guro" (エログロ) desensitizing some Japanese to the utter horror of these acts?

I should have been a psychology or sociology major - this would have made for a very interesting senior thesis. It all makes me so sad. Japan is such a beautiful country with a fascinating culture - it's usually very safe. Crimes are so rare there, I think they seem all the more shocking, especially when viewed by the West. Just so sad.

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