News analysis

Japan knife attack: Need for early intervention in mental healthcare

Japan is one of the world's safest countries despite yesterday morning's shocking attack at a home for the disabled, which killed 19 people and wounded 25 others.

The latest crime statistics released last Thursday by the National Police Agency show that the number of offences is "on track" to fall below one million this year, for the first time.

There were 488,900 reported crimes in the first half of the year, down 9.3 per cent from the same period last year. Of these, 435 were murder and attempted murder cases, 56 fewer than last year.

Strict laws in Japan deter gun ownership. The country has a history of stabbings, though mass killings on yesterday's scale are extremely rare.

Still, yesterday's attack - along with several others that have made headlines in recent times for their grisly nature - underscores the need for the local authorities to focus on early intervention in its mental healthcare system.

 

Yesterday's alleged attacker, Satoshi Uematsu, 26, made comments on Twitter such as this one last Saturday after shootings in Munich: "It would have been fun if (the weapon) was a toy gun."

The fact that he had sent a letter detailing his plan to his local parliamentarian should also have been a red flag - even if he was discharged after being warded for 12 days in a mental hospital.

Questions remain as to whether he was required to return to the hospital for regular assessments.

Osaka University clinical philosophy lecturer Michael Gillan Peckitt said of the attack: "Someone doesn't get to that state without some symptoms of mental illness."

Pointing to problems in the system, criminology expert Hidemichi Morosawa told broadcaster NHK: "The current legal and mental welfare systems are preventing any of their branches from communicating with each other."

What must also be of concern is whether there are loopholes in the Swords and Firearms Control Law, revised in 2009 after a stabbing spree in the popular electronics belt Akihabara a year earlier.

The government banned the possession of daggers and other double-edged knives with blades 5.5cm or longer after Tomohiro Kato, then 26, drove a truck into the Akihabara crowd on a Sunday afternoon, killing three and injuring two. He then alighted and stabbed at least 12 people with a 13cm dagger, killing four. Kato has been sentenced to death.

But SIM University Japan expert Lim Tai Wei said the already very strict laws mean "laws related to weapons are unlikely to come under public scrutiny".

More disturbingly, the perpetrators of violent crimes are getting younger, and they are often loners with difficulties integrating with society. A list of recent cases makes for uncomfortable reading - and suggests a need for security and healthcare institutions to work closely together to ferret out at-risk youth.

In May, pop star Mayu Tomita, 20, sustained over 20 stab wounds in an attack by a 27-year-old male stalker fan, who was angry that she rejected his advances.

Last month, a teenager stabbed a 42-year-old woman to death with an ice pick in Ibaraki prefecture, and then dumped her body in a river, in a random attack after he "felt a sudden urge to do so".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'Wanted: Early intervention in mental healthcare'. Print Edition | Subscribe