Tomohiro Kato was tired of life. That’s the explanation he gave police for driving a two-ton truck into Sunday shoppers before randomly stabbing people, slaying seven and injuring 10. He wanted to go out in a kamikaze nosedive into the heart of Japanese weirdness, Akihabara.
But Kato himself is profoundly weird, and his words don’t satisfy anyone trying to make sense of his horrific acts. Looking into his background, who do we find? A boy from Aomori pushed to succeed in school who eventually began beating up his mother. A youth who went from studying at a leading high school to failing his university entrance exams.
A young man facing layoff from his dead-end temp job at a car factory. An angry loner who took refuge in the internet, anime and video games. A smiling man in security camera footage from a knife shop.
The story arc of Kato’s life tells of deep alienation and hopelessness. He bemoaned his fate in online posts, calling himself too ugly ever to have a real girlfriend. A school yearbook lists his “love” as Rutee Kartret, a female character from "Tales of Destiny," a role-playing video game centered on magic blades. He had no friends, instead finding companionship in his cellphone, to which he was addicted. Bitterly resentful of confident, successful people, he was painfully aware of his estrangement from society. He saw himself as irrelevant. “I’m lower than trash because at least the trash gets recycled,” he wrote.
Kato is an "otaku" (geek), but so utterly disaffected that he had no sympathy even for fellow losers. Instead of going to Akihabara for camaraderie, he went to slaughter.
He specified his target in cell phone posts prior to the rampage. Fueled by self-loathing, Kato may have wanted to annihilate the symbolic nucleus of Japan’s fantasylands, that which helped make him what he is. After all, Akihabara and its virtual opiates can only provide a temporary escape from the pain of the real world. The drug was losing its potency, and when reality came knocking, Kato’s shell crumbled like a slain monster in a video game.
Workplace restructuring was the trigger. The 25-year-old was part of Japan’s proletarian underclass, the growing ranks of working poor. The Shizuoka auto plant was laying people off, and Kato’s sense of job security plummeted. When he arrived at work one day and found his uniform missing, he began screaming and then fled. Living in a company dorm room with little in it beside a few DVDs featuring big-eyed cartoon girls, Kato was hard-up for yen and had to sell his computer to get enough cash to rent the truck he used on his rampage. With no friends or family to turn to for support, he didn’t bother seeking help from Japan’s woefully inadequate counseling services. Instead, he quietly planned his last visit to Akihabara.
He was familiar with Electric Town — one of the most photographed spots in Japan. While despising society, Kato craved its attention. He knew the impact his bloody endgame would have if played out on such a prominent stage. There would be amateur crime-scene footage uploaded to the internet, coupled with wall-to-wall media coverage. “My dream: to monopolize the tabloid TV shows,” he wrote. His dream came true in the nightmare on Chuo Street.
Psychopathic loners are nothing new in Japan. Otaku were demonized after the killing of young girls in the late 1980s by Tsutomu Miyazaki, dubbed “The Otaku Murderer” for his collection of anime and horror films. Today, "otaku" are mainstream. The establishment co-opted the subculture and began gentrifying Akihabara, with the foreign minister expressing fealty. Anime and manga became foreign policy.
But the dark side of Akiba is still there. At its core, it’s an antisocial culture, one that fetishizes the virtual over the real, where society is a mere adjunct. Sure, there are cosplayer parades, comic conventions and multiplayer games. But there are also infinitely more opportunities for solitary escape, and this is really the neighborhood’s raison d’être. One of its latest fads, the banal maid cafés, gives patrons the illusion of interacting with real live women. And if real women are too threatening, there’s always Oimoya, a pedophilia shop on Chuo Street that specializes in girls under 15. A community of dysfunctional people is not a functional community.
But Kato’s "otaku" interests did not drive him to murder; his inability to deal with his problems, and his inability to form normal relationships did. He was a downtrodden man desperate to end his isolation and despair. His "otaku" pastimes may have kept his demons at bay for a while, but in the end they proved more powerful. As the Akiba narcotic faded, Kato could only conclude: “Happiness is a dream out of my reach.”
Akihabara is the stuff of dreams. The bigger it becomes, the harder it gets for the many dispossessed young people in Japan like Tomohiro Kato to grapple with that never-ending vexation called life. No wonder he was tired of it.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today