Media watch: Akihabara rampage ground zero for a certain type of criminal motivation

On Tuesday it was reported that Tomohiro Kato, the man who in 2008 killed 7 people and injured 10 others on a crowded street in the Akihabara section of Tokyo, was executed at the Tokyo Detention Center. The hanging was notable to the media for two reasons. One was that he was the only prisoner on death row executed that day. In recent years, the justice ministry has usually chosen to put to death more than one condemned person on days when they carry out executions. The other note of interest is that Kato’s execution comes very quickly on the heels of the killing of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, as if it were some kind of reaction.

Though the motives and m.o.s of Kato and the man arrested for Abe’s murder, Tetsuya Yamagami, are quite different, there is one similarity that seems unavoidable. Both men carried out their lethal acts with the expectation of being caught and punished for them. And while it is not clear at this time if Yamagami’s real motivation went beyond punishing someone for the victimization he felt at the hands of the Unification Church, he must have certainly understood that he could face the death penalty, even though capital punishment is rarely administered to people who kill only one person. Abe’s status as an important Japanese statesman and historical figure, however, makes his killing special in a way. At the moment, Yamagami is being psychiatrically evaluated.

In that regard, Kato was a kind of archetype, since he not only expected to get the death penalty, but, based on media reports that have circulated ever since the Akihabara killings, he welcomed the possibility and may even have carried out the murders for the purpose of being put to death. That’s why many reporters and commentators have called what he did “suicide by capital punishment.” The idea of purposely leaving this plane of existence while taking a number of people with you is not a new one, though it seems to have become more commonly applied owing to media ubiquity and, in the U.S., at least, the free availability of firearms to anyone regardless of age, criminal past, or psychological disposition; but in many cases in the U.S., the perpetrators of mass killings commit suicide by their own hand. In Japan, there have been a number of murders and attempted murders since Kato’s rampage where the alleged killer seems to seek self-annihilation through state action. Prior to the Akihabara massacre, there was the horrific killing of 8 elementary school children in Osaka in 2001. The perpetrator, Mamoru Takuma, was sentenced to death in 2003 and executed the following year, though there is ample documentation that he was mentally ill and had already committed various acts of violence, so it isn’t clear if he killed with the aim of being put to death. He definitely hated humanity and wanted the world to know it. 

This subject is endlessly fascinating to the Japanese media, and anti-capital punishment advocates have pointed to the use of random murder as a means of asserting one’s existence as proof that the death penalty is not a deterrence, as its proponents claim, but rather an incentive to kill. It’s unlikely that such an argument will sway the Japanese public, which, in surveys, overwhelmingly supports capital punishment, though mainly for the reason that perpetrators of such acts must pay for them with their lives, meaning the punishment is meant to be retributive rather than deterrent. Kato’s case is thus more instructive of what some killers want to accomplish, because his motives have been studied and discussed more. As recently as May 19, in fact, Mainichi Shimbun ran a long article about Kato and his crime, almost two months before Abe’s murder. There is no evidence in the article that its timing had any significance. It just seems to be yet another attempt to make sense out of what he did, and points up how historically important the rampage was. The first effect of the killing was a revision of the Firearms and Sword Control Law, which has since made it legally more difficult to carry a knife. Just after noon on June 8, 2008, Kato drove a rented two-ton truck into a crowd of pedestrians in an intersection that was closed off to traffic, as it usually was on Sundays in the shopping district of Akihabara, killing and maiming some people instantly, and then he emerged from the truck with a weapons-grade knife he had recently purchased at a military supply store and started stabbing people at random.

Mainichi describes the crime in detail, as well as how Kato planned it out, but the gist of the article is Kato’s mindset vis-a-vis his use of social media, specifically internet bulletin boards, which became his only outlet for social interaction. Much of the explication of his actions on that tragic morning involve indecision—Kato drove by the fateful intersection several times before being able to execute his plan. This ambivalence is a leitmotif throughout the article as it describes a spiraling descent into self-loathing and misanthropy after he left home. Apparently, he was supposed to go to a top line university, and attended a so-called elite high school for that purpose. Growing up in Aomori, his father was a banker and his mother a homemaker who saw great things in him as the family’s eldest son. He got high marks in school and was moderately successful as an athlete, as well as a member of the shogi club and a choirmaster. However, for reasons that Mainichi doesn’t make clear enough, he decided to forego a 4-year university, opting instead to attend a junior college in Gifu Prefecture with the aim of getting a job in the automotive industry. And he was successful up to a point. Eventually, he worked at an automobile factory in Saitama Prefecture, but along the way also had jobs as a delivery person and a security guard. When he started working at an auto parts factory in Shizuoka Prefecture in November 2007, it was as an outsourced worker for a temporary employment agency, which is probably not what he had in mind when he decided to be in the automobile business. 

The wage was decent: at ¥1,300 an hour his gross pay was about ¥200,000 a month, but by that time, according to the prosecutor who tried his case, he had become frustrated with his lot in life, believing that he had no “value” as a human being. Mainichi makes more of Kato’s failure at generating a social life. He met a woman through a dating site who seemed to like him, but after he sent a photo of himself to her she stopped communicating, and that seemed to be the beginning of the end.

Though such a summary sounds trite, what needs to be emphasized was that this was still in the formative days of social media. There was no Twitter and Facebook had just recently launched for the general public. Kato spent most of his time online reading bulletin boards, where the exchange was free and often coarse. Moreover, there was no widely held cautionary discourse on trolling conduct. Kato saw bulletin boards as a means of venting his frustration, and he expected sympathy in return, but all he got was grief from interlocutors who made fun of his comments. Apparently, one troll even pretended to be him in order to make him look like even more of a fool. Coincidentally, around this time his temp company contacted him to say the factory where he worked no longer needed him, and while a week later the company called again to say the factory had changed its mind and wanted him to come back, he had already sunk into a depression from which he couldn’t easily return. As the prosecutor put it, Kato had come to the conclusion that his purpose in life was just to “fill up space.” After an incident at the factory where he couldn’t find his work uniform and thought he was being forced to resign, he posted a message on the bulletin board explaining that he would carry out a sensational murder that would “dominate the news shows,” and while Mainichi interprets this post as a cry for help, no one responded, thus steeling his resolve to carry out the killings. He bought the knife and reserved the truck. So by the time Kato arrived in Akihabara, his murderous plans, not to mention his self-avowed desire to die, were already public knowledge to anyone who cared to read them online. His defense lawyers point to these revelations as proof that he wanted somebody to stop him, but nobody did. 

It’s not until the end of the article that the Mainichi reporter analyzes the situation from a remove. Reality is all about what’s on the surface, says the reporter, while the internet is all about what’s below the surface, and to Kato the bulletin board community was the only family he could turn to. He could not talk to his own family. One of the constant themes of the coverage of Kato in the years just after the rampage was his mother’s cruelty. In elementary school, if he couldn’t correctly recite his multiplication tables while taking a bath, his mother would thrust his head under the water. If he ate his meals too slowly, she would physically force him to eat faster. She even altered his school drawings and compositions, adding to his frustration.

As with almost all members of that ultra-minority of people on Japan’s death row, Kato wrote and tried to explain himself. Though he didn’t necessarily dispute the theory that he had carried out the killings as an indirect means to his own end, he explained the motivation in a different way. By choosing to die through the legal system, it didn’t actually mean he wanted to die. But once you “see hell,” he said, you don’t want to be alone, and that’s what prison is all about. Consequently, the death penalty is better. 

Update (July 27, 6 p.m.): The Mainichi just posted this information about Kato possibly seeking a retrial before he was executed, which adds a whole new dimension to this story.

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