The country is struggling to come to terms with the increasingly violent behaviour of its young people, writes David McNeill in Tokyo
It began like a thousand playground tiffs. An 11-year-old girl, upset that her classmate had called her a goody-goody and a fatty, took her to one side during lunch break for a talk. But instead of ending in a shouting match or some hair pulling, the row a fortnight ago left 12-year-old Satomi Mitarai dying in a pool of blood on the floor of a classroom in Okubo Primary School, in the city of Sasebo.
Her killer, who cannot be named under Japan's juvenile laws, admitted she had planned the murder for days before she took a retractable paper cutter from a pencil case, walked around Satomi and slashed her neck from behind. "I've done a bad thing, but now I'm sorry for Satomi's family," she told police, who say they are mystified by the crime. "She's just an ordinary little girl," one senior policeman told the press.
For many of the pundits who filled the airwaves to try to explain the horror of murder between pigtailed schoolgirls, there was a weary sense of déjà vu. Many struggled last summer to explain why a 12-year-old boy had molested and murdered a four-year-old, in the same month that a 14-year-old boy beat a classmate to death. Dozens of similar incidents have stunned Japan over the past decade. In the most notorious, in 1997, a schoolboy beheaded 11-year-old Jun Hase and stuck a note in the mouth of the corpse, taunting police. It said: "To all you moronic policemen: let's see you stop me. Murder is my greatest pleasure."
Like the 1993 killing of the Liverpool toddler Jamie Bulger by two 10-year-olds, the murder of Jun Hase was a landmark in Japanese criminal history, and in the moral panic that followed the government pushed down the legal age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 14. It was the usual rush for a legislative quick fix to a problem with complex social roots, and it solved little. Youth crime has continued to rise, and juveniles are now involved in over half of felony arrests, despite making up just over 7 per cent of the population.
The sense of impotence and panic following the latest outrage has been palpable, especially among politicians, who are increasingly turning on the usual suspects. Some have blamed the rise of the Internet, but Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister, probably spoke for most when he criticised parents. "It is the responsibility of adults to think seriously how we should raise children," he said, apparently forgetting his own less-than- stellar record in child rearing: Koizumi abandoned his wife in 1983, when she was pregnant with his third child, and he has never met his youngest son.
But while mums and dads have had to accept some of the blame, others point to a deeper malaise as the cause of the epidemic of teen and now pre-teen violence. The roots of this malaise, they say, lie in the demands of an adult world that may no longer be functioning. "Japanese kids are victims of a system that worked for parents but which is now breaking down," says Osamu Mizutani, who has written a best-selling book on Japan's fallen youth. "It's no good just blaming parents. We have to look at the bigger picture."
For most of the postwar years, schools in Japan mirrored the country's corporations, churning out well-educated and obedient workers using an education model that emphasised discipline and rote learning. The pressures of this system, in which exam performance became the sole measure of success, were considerable but mostly tolerated while the rewards of employment for life and a stake in an expanding economy existed.
But since the mid-1990s this contract has been fraying. It is no coincidence that the current wave of youth violence began just as Japan Inc started to malfunction, shrinking the job market for school leavers and tearing a hole through the system of lifetime employment. Home life is increasingly scarred by the problems of joblessness, poverty and the breakdown in family life, while school for many children keeps making the same old demands for uncertain rewards. Few know or care about their parents' years of sacrifice.
"Japan is now paying the price for decades of sacrificing trust and intimacy and personal realisation to efficiency and economic growth," writes John Nathan in his book Japan Unbound. "Violent juvenile crime is only one extreme aspect of a broader crisis of anger, confusion and loss of self that is currently afflicting Japanese youth." One manifestation of the crisis is the refusal of at least 120,000 children to go to school at all. Many more are locking themselves away in their bedrooms, sometimes for years. Those willing to talk tell stories strikingly similar to the confessions of child killers such as the one who struck last week in Sasebo, often using the verb to kireru, or snap. Kanako Mizoguchi, who dropped out of school at 14 and spent five years locked in her bedroom, remembers feeling invisible in class. "I felt I was this empty vessel that was just there to be pumped full of information. One day I felt like I was going to snap, and that was it. I left."
What makes the murder of Satomi Mitarai especially worrying for educational authorities and parents here is the age and sex of her attacker. Like a mutating virus immune to the latest legal antibiotics, the violence, which was for a while mostly confined to teenage boys, seems to be infecting ever-younger offenders. Many wonder when the next horror story will emerge. "I get thousands of e-mails from kids who have read my books," says Mizutani, who patrols the streets of Yokohama at night, trying to rescue teenagers from the street. "About 30 per cent of them say they want to die. The authorities can't see the problems that are coming yet, but I can, because I'm closer to the children. There's a lot more to come."