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Rabbit killer makes Japan's parents fear for children

The front page of the evening paper carried a specially drawn map showing the exact locations of the crimes, eleven small towns and cities scattered across the Japanese heartland. Kawachi, 30 May, seven killed. Shiroi, 28 August, 15 killed, with a further eight found dead the next day, a few miles away in Inzai. Nearly one hundred brutal murders at 11 schools around Kanto, the broad plain of suburbs and commuter towns surrounding Tokyo.

Screaming headlines are not the Japanese newspaper style, but in this case the Asahi Evening News made an exception. "Butchered pets strike fear in Kanto region," read Sunday's front page: "Pet Rabbits In Peril".

Japan is famous throughout the world as a virtually crime-free society but not, it seems, if you are a bunny. Since the end of May, 86 rabbits and seven chickens have been killed in nursery and primary schools all over Kanto. Some have been set upon by dogs, after their cages were deliberately broken into; others were beaten to death, dismembered or disembowelled by what looks suspiciously like an organised hit squad.

In most countries, the attacks would be considered nasty but inconsequential, and at any other time the same might be true here. But this has been an unusual and upsetting year in Japan, and recent events have endowed the bunny killings with a much deeper and more sinister significance.

The attack at the Motogo Minami Elementary School in Saitama Prefecture at the end of last month was typical: four out of the school's five pet rabbits were found with their throats ripped out by dogs, in cages which had been prised open by a human hand. Understandably, the attack caused great upset among the school's pupils; their headmaster, Shigeru Hagihara, told the Asahi that he found them "eerily quiet" when he broke the news to them at the beginning of the new term last week.

The local police seem to have few clues and, in any case, cruelty to animals is not considered a particularly serious offence in Japan, where it can be prosecuted only as a crime against property. But the horror engendered by the attacks has less to do with what has happened, than with fear of what might come next. "With the string of murders and attacks on schoolchildren in Kobe," said Mr Hagihara, "attacks on small animals strike closer to home."

In May, Japanese public opinion was traumatised by the murder of Jun Hase, an 11-year-old Kobe boy whose severed head was found placed the gates of his school. The following month, a 14-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of the crime. It appears that the boy had killed at least two other schoolchildren. Police attention was drawn to him after he boasted of killing cats, whose severed tongues he carried around in a jar in his pocket.

Another notorious serial killer, a young man named Tsutomu Miyazaki, also tortured to death cats and dogs before embarking on the murders of four girls. Japan has long been vexed by worries about its children. The Kobe killings have prompted still more intense reflection, with anxious comparisons to the killing of James Bulger, and calls for a toughening up of Japan's juvenile crime laws. It has become impossible to see animal killings as just a sick aberration; the fear of teachers like Mr Hagihara is that whoever is killing rabbits today will tomorrow turn to children.