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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Violent crime stalks Japan's youth
crime scene at ikeda
Crime scenes are becoming more familiar
By BBC News Online's Mangai Balasegaram

The terrified screams of children that were heard at Ikeda elementary school on Friday are bound to echo across Japan for some time.

The savagery of the crime - in which a mentally unstable man ran amok with a knife at the school killing eight children - has stunned the nation.

School slayings are - tragically - not that uncommon in the United States, but in Japan, an attack of this nature and scale has never happened at a school before.

This is a country that is said to be one of the safest in the world, with very little regular violent crime.

It's the kind of place where you can leave your wallet in a phone box and retrieve it the next day.

But that image of rock-solid safety has taken a beating lately, with a growing unease in the nation about crime - although not from such incidents as this latest one.

Pupils run from school
Children fled from the school after the attack in Ikeda
There have been growing concerns about an apparent rise of mindless, violent crime in the country, particularly by the young.

Violence at schools has also risen in recent years, with teens stabbing teachers and classmates.

A series of headline-grabbing incidents have led to a media blitz on the subject, and has prompted legislators to amend juvenile laws to deal with violent teenage crime.

Last year, teenage crime was rated the top story of the year by the Kyodo news agency, while some commentators have said that it was one of the country's top social problems.

Baseball battering

Among the most shocking incidents last year occurred in the town of Osafunecho in western Japan.

A 17-year-old considered to be a "nice" boy got into a fight with his schoolmates over haircuts, and then went home and beat his mother to death with a baseball bat.

According to the police, he smashed his mother around the head because she refused to give him pocket money.

japanese child
Alienated children who shut themselves away are a concern
The boy fled the scene and when caught later, 1,100 kilometres (700 miles) away, he told police that he left his mother dying because she would have disapproved of his fight with schoolmates.

In other cases, a 17-year-old boy bludgeoned passengers at a Tokyo subway station with a baseball bat after a fight with his father, while a pair of teenage lovers stabbed a taxi driver and stole his earnings "so they could live together".

Then there was an incident involving a popular and gifted 17-year-old, who stabbed an elderly neighbour to death simply because he wanted to know what it felt like to kill.

The country is still haunted by memories of a 14-year-old boy in Kobe, western Japan, who cut off an 11-year-old playmate's head and stuck it on the school gates in May 1997 - this after bludgeoning another child to death with a hammer two months earlier.

The statistics do show that juvenile crime has hit a 10-year high, with many more teens arrested for murder. The numbers of murders doubled to 53 in the first half of 2000.

Causes

Commentators have given a variety of reasons for the problem - children who are too spoilt, schools that are too lax, and a pressure cooker society that looks down on failure.

Some attribute the problem to the "hikikomori" - young people who have shut themselves off in their rooms, and who may be victims of bullying.

Media estimates put the number of hikikomori in Japan from anywhere between 500,000 and one million.

Other media analyses talk about "kireru" - when young people suddenly snap.

No doubt, Japan will find no easy answers as it struggles to cope with what was once a problem that belonged to other countries.

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See also:

08 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Pupils die in Japan knife massacre
23 Mar 99 | Correspondents
Disorder in Japan's schools
17 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Teen bat rampage shocks Tokyo
21 Apr 99 | UK
Dunblane victims remembered
03 May 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Japan
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