Conflict & Justice

Under strict gun laws, Japan's mass killers must rely on knives instead

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Police officers guard the front of a center for the disabled, where a mass knife killing took place, in Sagamihara, Kanagawa prefecture, Japan, on July 26.

Credit:

Issei Kato/Reuters

His only weapons were a few knives and some straps to tie down his victims. Yet in less than an hour, he had killed 19 people. That's as many homicides as most districts in Japan see in five years.

Japan’s homicide rate makes the United States look like a war zone. Consider that Tokyo is five times larger than Chicago. And yet, in 2014, Tokyo tallied a mere 11 homicides. Chicago racked up 416 — a difference of more than 3,500 percent.

When mass killings do strike Japan, the killer is unlikely to carry a gun. He is invariably armed with a knife. It's one of the few lethal weapons that a homicidal Japanese person can acquire. Tuesday's tragedy occurred in Kanagawa, a pristine prefecture between Tokyo and Mount Fuji. The killer broke into a center for the disabled where he reportedly used to work, which is alongside a tree-lined river.

His name, according to Japanese media, is 26-year-old Satoshi Uematsu. In the early hours Tuesday, he targeted residents with mental disabilities as they slept and stabbed as many as 50 people, 19 fatally — killing or injuring almost a third of the center's 150 patients in a matter of 40 minutes, The Associated Press reported.

It was Japan’s deadliest mass killing since World War II.

Unlike the Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, Uematsu was not a racial supremacist. Unlike attackers in Brussels and Paris, he was not linked to religious extremists. His motive, confessed to police, was to purge disabled people from society.

Several of Japan’s mass killings — rare as they may be — have also involved misanthropes with knives.

In 2008, a man “tired of life” killed seven in a hip Tokyo shopping enclave with his speeding truck and a knife. As a shopper told The Guardian at the time: “Japanese people are not used to this kind of thing. This isn’t the US.”

In 2001, a man “sick of life” fatally stabbed eight children at an elementary school. And in 1995, Japan reeled from its most infamous mass murder — a sarin gas attack, set loose in a subway by a doomsday cult, that left 12 dead.

There is a reason none of these attacks involve guns: Practically all types of firearms are outlawed in Japan, which has practiced strict gun control since its post-feudal era in the late 1800s.

Want a handgun in Japan? Possession can land you in prison for 10 years. How about a rifle? Only if you acquired it before 1971 — and when you die, your kids must hand it over to the police.

Legal firearms in Japan are largely limited to shotguns. But buying one requires submitting to a regulatory gauntlet that would cause NRA devotees to palpitate.

You have to undergo a battery of shooting tests, written exams and a yearly gun inspection by the police. The cops also insist on knowing exactly where you keep your weapon inside your home.

There’s also a hurdle that would likely have prevented the Kanagawa killer from ever obtaining a shotgun: a mental health evaluation. Earlier this year, according to The Japan Times, he was forcibly admitted to a mental hospital under suspicions that he wanted to harm others.

The Kanagawa attack is extremely gruesome and arrives amid a seemingly nonstop spree of mass killings in the United States and Europe. Yet on the macro level, Japan, like the United States, is seeing murder rates fall.

One of Japan’s leading news outlets, NHK, posted frequent updates from Kanagawa. But alongside reports on the massacre, another breaking crime story appeared. The reported offense? A purse snatched from a 22-year-old girl distracted by "Pokemon Go" — a crime worthy of nationwide news in one of the world’s safest countries.