On July 26, 2016, Satoshi Uematsu broke into the Tsukui Yamayuri En care center for the disabled after 2 am. A former employee of the facility in Sagamihara, Kanagawa prefecture, he killed 19 patients with knives, injuring 26 others, including 2 staff members.
It was the worst spree killing in Japan’s postwar history. Uematsu remains unapologetic, and claims he was on a mission to euthanize the disabled. He was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder and convicted of murder. It was found that although he had already been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital before the killings, he had been released in March.
One year later, some of the victims of these attacks have yet to be publicly named. JAPAN Forward investigates how this decision was made, and how the families of the victims and employees of the facility feel about it.
The Kanagawa police refused to publicize the names of the victims of the Sagamihara attack, as it was a “facility for the mentally disabled.” Even today, advocacy groups for the disabled question this decision.
Toru Yuki, director of Zenshinren, a group for parents of disabled children, reflected on the course of events. “The police response, at first glance, caused many families to worry, and encouraged discrimination against the disabled. We needed to hear a response that would tell us that there was nothing wrong with publicizing the names of victims,” he said.
Yuki stressed the critical nature of the situation: “If we don’t live in a society where the parents themselves find it obvious to publicize the names of the victims, we will end up producing more Uematsus.”
Takanori Hattori, professor of media law at Rikkyo University, also raised doubts. “When we as a society wish to express our collective condolences, I have to wonder whether it is really beneficial for us to have no other names for the deceased than Victim A, Victim B, and so on.”
The enactment of the Personal Information Protection Law of Heisei 17 (2005) has put pressure on public authorities to anonymize. While abiding by the will of victims’ relatives has led to the argument that “sometimes it’s unavoidable if we wish to treat the families with dignity,” Professor Hattori warns: “In fact, the problem is that the police do not merely reach out to the families and learn their wishes, but anonymize arbitrarily by their own volition. A system needs to be made that can access police records when there is reason to do so.”
Most of the victims’ names are still anonymous even today. It’s believed that the relatives of victims wish to keep themselves and the patients anonymous. Two former employees of Tsukui Yamayuri En are urging these relatives to allow the names to be made public, out of the hope that “we might leave proof of each individual life lived,” but they find themselves running up against a brick wall.
“I want this to be the first and last time I hear from you.” This was in a letter from a victim’s relative that Ken Ota, 74, received earlier this year. He was an employee of the care facility for 36 years and knew many of the patients’ families. Last autumn he sent out letters to several families who he had been on good terms with before the incident, but all four who replied expressed a clear desire not to continue the correspondence.
Junji Nishizumi, 52, who worked alongside Ota at the facility, agrees that “the situation is grave.” He has met with five families, but when he raised the subject of making the names of victims public, without exception their expressions hardened.
According to Nishizumi, the desire to keep the victims anonymous is influenced by the age of the relatives involved. “Over many decades, they must have come to recognize that Japanese society is not accepting of disabilities.”
Not a few families wish to keep their distance from the incident.
One victim’s relative, whose family member was killed after 30 years in the facility, has made it known that “I hadn’t spoken to [the victim] in 30 years. I have nothing to say at this point either.”
Another relative objected sternly, “That [incident] had nothing to do with us.”
But former employees of the facility who had cared for the 19 victims have come to see “proof of lives lived,” however dim, through their own memories. One of the victims was a man like a leader, who had looked after the employees and helped them learn their jobs. Another man loved trains and would demonstrate his close imitation of the conductors’ voice, saying, “The doors are now closing.” Another victim loved the smell of methanol cream and would eagerly apply it when it was put on his hands.
“There are still many things we have to do,” said the two former employees, vowing to continue their work.