Stabbing Rampage in Akihabara

On June 8th, 25 year-old Tomohiro Kato drove a rental truck into a crowded pedestrian street in Tokyo's Akihabara district, the area whose name has become synonymous with anime and otaku culture. After running over 3 people in the crowded streets (which are closed to traffic and packed with shoppers on Sundays) Kato then exited the truck and began stabbing nearby pedestrians with a "survival" knife purchased at a military equipment store.

Rumors are circulating that Kato was pretty quickly chased by a Japanese policeman, but when confronted with nothing more than a police baton, he went on stabbing nearby pedestrians for several blocks until the cop finally pulled a gun on him. Kato then collapsed on the sidewalk and lay there, curled up, until escorted into a police cruiser.

When it was all over, 17 people had been seriously injured, including another policeman. 10 of the victims survived. Among the seven killed are six men, ranging in age from 19-74, and one 21 year-old woman.

Warning: This video contains some disturbing content

When asked why he did it, Kato replied that he was, "Tired of living," adding, "“I came to Akihabara to kill people. It didn’t matter whom I’d kill.”
read more here

When something like this happens in Japan, it seems all the more shocking because there is almost NO random violent crime there. The feeling is something like it was when the Columbine School shootings first occurred-- a random, violent act, with the single objective of killing as many unknown people as possible, perpetrated in what was thought to be a "safe" environment.

The act of violently stabbing and killing random people in broad daylight is unfortunately becoming all too common in Japan. In January 2008, a 16-year old boy went on a stabbing spree in a shopping street in Shinagawa. This past March, a 24 year-old man killed one and wounded seven in Tsuchiura. And this month's tragedy occurred on the anniversary of the Osaka Elementary School stabbings of 2001, when a man forced his way into an elementary school and killed 8 children with a kitchen knife.
Although I'm sure a lot of it can be attributed to serious mental illness, I'm positive that modern Japan's culture of hegemony, emotional detachment, and social severence have also greatly contributed to such explosive, psychotic, mental breakdowns.
Anyone who's ever ridden the commuter train from Tokyo on a weekday has seen the glazed, resigned looks on the faces of tired, stressed-out, over-worked company employees, with faces intent upon cell-phones, burried in books, sleeping (or pretending to sleep) or just staring blankly off into space; all desperately trying not to ackknowledge the presence of the other human beings around them. Riding the train at 6pm often leaves one with the unsettling, surreal feeling of being engulfed in a sea of what you would classify as either life-like mannequins or robots whose batteries are just about run out, dangling precariously from wrists hooked in hand straps.

There are a lot of things I love about Japan. But the coldness with which human beings interact with each other-- or more often than not, DON'T interact with each other-- on a daily basis constantly affected me while I was there. There are no warm smiles or friendly greetings between strangers. Rarely is there ever even eye-contact with another human being. The thought is that if you don't already know the person, and you have no specific business with them, you shouldn't look at them, talk to them, or otherwise acknowledge their existence. Doing so would be troublesome, bothersome, or 'odd'.

The entire country of Japan has the atmosphere of the first day of homeroom in high school. The pressure to "fit in" and the tension of keeping up an affected appearance is so thick that you live in fear of making any awkward movements and nearly hyperventilate from trying not to breathe "too loudly". You're wondering what everyone else is thinking about you, while trying to appear cool and unconcerned. Meanwhile, everyone else in the room is thinking and doing exactly the same thing, with the end result that no-one is talking, making eye contact, or otherwise acknowledging one-another because they're so wrapped up in their own neuroses.

In addition to the stress and pressures of Japanese work life, this crushing hegemony and all-consuming preoccupation with perfection saturates every aspect of modern Japanese life. I can't say I blame anyone for zoning out when they're in public.
Often, after returning from a day-trip into the city, I would feel inexplicably exhausted. Not sleepy, mind you... just physically and mentally worn down by the waves of people crashing in on me. At these times, I would often nod-off on the train-- not really sleeping-- but just closing my eyes and resting. It was a physical and mental relief to close my eyes and shut out the world. It let me pretend, however illogically, that I was alone for the moment. I was freed from the burden of acknowledging the presence of others around me-- other human beings who were there, were present, but with whom I knew I would have no real human interaction.

I'm not sure what the "answer" to this social problem is-- if an answer is even needed. All things considered, Japanese society has some pretty good things going for it, including the longest average life-span in the world and one of the lowest crime-rates of any industrialized nation. Perhaps this dehumanizing iron-clad hegemony that can freeze your spirit is the price you have to pay in order to keep everyone working hard and sticking to the straight & narrow.
But even with the low crime rate, long life-span, cool gadgets, and interesting culutre, I personally don't think I could stand to live the rest of my life in Japan--not in Kanto at any rate. That straight and narrow is just a little too narrow for me. In spite of everything I love about Japan (and there are a LOT of things I love about it) the paradoxical hostility of drowning in lonliness while being constantly surrounded and pressed in upon by a sea of people would be just too much for me to bear.

I'm reminded of that maddening line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."
In Japan, there are people literally EVERYWHERE. But finding someone with whom you can actually connect is like looking for a polar bear in a snowstorm.