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Youth Violence Has Japan Struggling for Answers

11-Year-Old's Killing of Classmate Puts Spotlight on Sudden Acts of Rage

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 9, 2004; Page A01

SASEBO, Japan -- On a cloudless afternoon in this sleepy port city, an 11-year-old girl drenched in blood and clutching a box cutter walked into the lunchroom at her elementary school. Teachers and students froze, assuming the sixth-grader known for her lighthearted nature had gravely hurt herself -- but she quickly dispelled that impression, witnesses said, by uttering a few chilling words: "This is not my blood."

Minutes later, teachers found Satomi Mitarai, a 12-year-old girl, lying in a pool of gore in an empty classroom overlooking the sandy playground at Okubo Elementary School. The 11-year old killer, according to her own admissions as recounted in interviews with school officials and counselors, had led Satomi, remembered for her toothy grin, into the room. The attacker drew the curtains before slitting her victim's throat and brutally kicking the dying girl's head and sides, according to those interviewed.

Schoolmates and relatives attended a service last month for Satomi Mitarai, 12, who was slain by an 11-year-old classmate at their school in early June. (Kyodo Via AP)

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The killing two months ago marked the latest and one of the most extreme in an extraordinary series of youth crimes in Japan -- including a number perpetrated by children who did not show unusual behavior beforehand. In many of the cases, the children involved seemed to snap without warning, in fits of kireru, sudden acts of rage.

The surge in youth violence has sparked calls for a reassessment of the increasingly violent and sexually charged youth culture in Japan, now exported worldwide through animation, comic strips and video games.

The young killer in Sasebo, whose name is being withheld under Japanese law, was an avid fan of "Battle Royale," a popular teen movie turned Internet game in which students kill one another through blood sport. Although the girl is still undergoing psychological evaluation, she is believed to have been set off by a seemingly minor offense: The victim, one of the girl's closest friends, once called her "overweight" and "prissy" on a Web site.

"What is so scary is that she seemed normal to us in every way," said Masashi Watanabe, head of the Sasebo Children's Counseling Center, whose staff interviewed the girl after the killing. "She did not seem like a troubled girl; there were no warning signs picked up by her teachers or parents. She could have been any of our children."

The youth crime wave is damaging the national sense of personal security in a country so safe that young children often ride subways or walk home through teeming cities unaccompanied by adults.

In recent years -- particularly since 1997, when a 14-year-old boy cut off the head of an 11-year old and left it at the entrance gate of his school -- Japan has experienced a rising tide of serious youth crimes, including arson, assault, rape, manslaughter and premeditated murder.

Incidents of violence on school grounds have increased fivefold in Japan over the past decade to 29,300 in 2002, leading the national Mainichi newspaper to warn of Japanese schoolyards descending "into battlefields." Violence by younger children in particular has risen rapidly, with the number of minors under 14 processed for violent crime increasing 47 percent in 2003 from a year earlier. One study by a children's research institute found that as many as 30 percent of high school and middle school students had experienced sudden acts of rage at least once a month. In response to rising youth crime, Japan lowered the age for criminal prosecution in 2001 from 16 to 14 and might lower it further.

Experts blame the violence on low self-confidence among children, and cite pressures on family life during the country's 13-year economic slump. Finances in Japan, the world's second-largest economy, are on the rise, but years in the doldrums sent divorce, domestic violence and suicide rates soaring, tearing at traditional family life and alienating child from parent.

"In Japan, youth crime is not a problem related to poverty," said Akira Sakuta, a noted criminal psychiatrist. "But rather, you can say it's more related to stress and developmental problems from children feeling they are not wanted or are lacking attention."

Many youths have retreated into the virtual world of the Internet, now easily accessed out of adult view on their cell phones. Children can view popular short animated films -- anime -- such as "Gunslinger Girl," a tale about murderous cyborg schoolgirls in plaid miniskirts.

Japan's top literary prize this year went to "Snakes and Earrings" by Hitomi Kanehara, 20. Shocking youth apathy, sex and violence are central elements of the book, a favorite of young people.

To be sure, violent crime is not the only social ill facing Japanese youths. Suicides by minors in Japan shot up for the fifth consecutive year in 2003, jumping 22.1 percent compared to a 6.9 percent increase for adults over the same period.

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