Japan reels under onslaught of children who 'snap' and kill

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The Independent Online

In the same month a schoolboy with a 12-inch knife hijacks a bus, holds 10 people hostage, then goes on a killing frenzy; a 16-year-old puts a sleeping commuter in a coma by striking him repeatedly with a hammer; a 17-year-old breaks into the house of an elderly woman and bludgeons her to death.

In the same month a schoolboy with a 12-inch knife hijacks a bus, holds 10 people hostage, then goes on a killing frenzy; a 16-year-old puts a sleeping commuter in a coma by striking him repeatedly with a hammer; a 17-year-old breaks into the house of an elderly woman and bludgeons her to death.

This is not New York or Saõ Paolo, but suburban Tokyo. Long regarded as one of the safest countries in the world, Japan is reeling from a year of brutal murders and random violence by teenagers from the hitherto crime-free suburbs. Last weekend a 17-year-old high-school student was arrested after going on a rampage with a metal baseball bat in Tokyo's busy Shibuya ward. Eight people were injured, one seriously. A police source said the boy had been repeatedly beaten by his father since primary school. A few days earlier a 17-year-old boy detonated a home-made bomb in a video store in Tokyo's Shinjuku business district.

The number of murders by juveniles doubled - from 26 to 53 - in the first six months of this year. Many cases involve teenagers from stable, affluent backgrounds and quiet neighbourhoods. Other offenders are victims of school bullying - now reaching crisis levels in Japan - such as the 17-year-old who earlier this year clubbed a schoolmate and his mother to death after being picked on.

"Our children are frustrated, emotionally suppressed and under too much pressure at school," warns Mr Nobuto Hosaka, an opposition MP. "These are not problem kids rebelling, but ordinary well-behaved boys and girls suffering breakdowns - nobody can predict when they will explode."

The authorities are baffled and have labelled these random acts of violence kireru, meaning "to snap". Experts disagree over the reasons why young people are snapping. Some argue that Japan's gruelling work ethic has led to the breakdown of traditional family life and a lack of discipline in the home. Japan is a nation of commuters, and a government survey showed that Japanese fathers spend less time with their children than their counterparts in other countries. Child psychologists, however, talk about an isolated generation overdosing on violent video games, the internet and television.

Like most Japanese teen killers, the bus hijacker - who had no criminal past or apparent motive for his crime - was bad at communicating with others, and had become withdrawn through playing TV games all day. According to his psychiatrist, he had been bullied from an early age and was like a "Robinson Crusoe figure whose whole world began and ended in his room".

Worrying signs of isolation and neglect show up in a survey carried out by the research group Tokyo Institute of Life and Living. One in three children between the ages of 10 and 13 said they thought of video games as friends and spent most of their free time alone in their rooms.

"Children believe video games serve their needs better than people because they can manipulate games more easily than they manage human relationships," says Ms Mariko Fugiwara, who conducted the survey. "They think 'whoever doesn't belong to my world I can attack or erase' - that is frightening."

The government has commissioned a report on the causes of kireru and has promised reforms in the school system to ease exam pressure on students. For many Japanese, though, the government isn't doing enough. Kenjiro and Tomoko Take's lives were devastated when their 16-year-old son, Takemura, was attacked and killed by a schoolboy in their quiet, well-heeled suburb of Osaka. Frustrated by what they consider to be lenient and outdated juvenile laws, the Take family have set up Japan's first victim support group and have launched a campaign for more openness in court and stiffer penalties for offenders.

The Takes are angry that they were excluded from the investigation into their son's death and the subsequent court hearing. "We were never told how our son was killed. We were not even told what punishment the offender received," says Mr Take.

Under the current system, young offenders of even the most serious crimes receive on average 12 months in reform school. "We feel it is too easy for young people to kill; we need tougher laws and longer sentences," adds Mr Take.

Detective Jin Kato, head of juvenile crime at Tokyo police department, disagrees. Kato spent 20 years tracking down and convicting yakuza (adult gangsters). Today he catches teen killers and is convinced that stiffer penalties for minors will do little to curb this crime wave sweeping across suburbia.

In the aftermath of a kireru attack, explains Kato, newspapers receive handfuls of letters from children sympathising with the killers. "Children are losing the plot," he says. "I'm afraid our whole way of life needs to change, before it's too late."

 

'Teenage Japanese Killers' will be shown on Channel 4 on Saturday 30 December at 10pm.

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