What makes the attack so unusual is its location. Japan, unlike many other modern societies, has largely been spared the mass killings that have hit other countries in recent years. The attack on Tuesday is Japan's worst mass killing since World War II.
"This kind of incident is never heard of in Japan," Teruaki Sugimoto, a 66-year-old man who lives near the care home, told The Washington Post.
Japan hasn't been completely spared such violence, however. A stabbing attack earlier this year in northern Japan killed one woman and wounded three, while five people were killed in a knife attack the year before on Awaji Island. Another knife attack killed eight children at an elementary school in Osaka in 2001. Other methods for mass violence have been used, too: Arson killed 16 in Osaka in 2008, while a man drove a truck into a crowd in Tokyo that year before using a knife to attack people, ultimately leaving nine dead. A similar attack, involving a car and a knife, occurred in 1999 in Shimonoseki and left five people dead.
And, of course, there was the 1995 release of sarin gas by the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo's subway system that killed 12 people and harmed thousands — an attack that stands out because it was committed by an ideologically motivated group rather than an individual.
In general, however, mass violence is rare in Japan. Homicides are rare, too. Last year, there were 933 homicides in Japan, which has a population of 127.3 million. The toll marked a decline from 1,054 the year before. The United States has more than twice the population of Japan, but FBI statistics for 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, show 11,961 homicides — more than 11 times the number in Japan that year.
When the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a report on global homicide in 2014, it singled out Japan's low rate as notable. "With no notable fluctuations, the homicide rate in Japan has decreased steadily since 1955 to reach one of the lowest levels in the world," the report's authors noted. "The country’s homicide rate is associated with a stable and prosperous society with low inequality and high levels of development."
The UNODC cited a number of theories for why homicides occurred so rarely in Japan, including the fact that 98 percent of homicide cases are solved, the growth of affluence and a general rejection of violence after World War II — even the country's organized criminals, the yakuza, are said to avoid violent confrontations, coming up with unusual techniques such as standing outside a business swinging a cat by its tail to extort money.
Of particular interest to American readers might be the scarcity of guns in Japan. The country has strict requirements for owning a gun and harsh punishments for those who break the rules. As a consequence, there are few guns in the country; Japan has 0.6 guns per 100 civilians compared with 101 guns per 100 civilians in the United States, and even firearm enthusiasts seem comfortable with that. Japan had a single shooting death in 2015, compared with more than 13,000 in the United States. According to one count, 475 people were killed in mass shootings alone in the United States last year.
The rampage in Sagamihara does show that even without guns, attacks with a high number of fatalities can happen. For those in Japan, that's just one alarming detail in a case that seems confounding in many regards. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Google search results showed a spike in searches for "Japan ISIS" as international users apparently sought to square the violence with a global trend.
Ultimately, the care-facility attack seems to have been driven by more localized and personal problems. What little is known about the motives behind the crime comes from the suspect himself, who once worked as an administrator at the care home. "It's better that disabled people disappear," Uematsu told police after he gave himself up.
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