Natural-Born Killers?

In Japan, a crime wave leads to finger pointing at a class of psychologically troubled, antisocial teens

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Crime is the one thing Japan was always happy to admit was best made in America. But a teen killing spree is starting to give the lie to the idea that Japan is preternaturally immune from violence. Last week a 15-year-old boy on southern Japan's Kyushu Island slipped into a neighbor's house after dark and attacked six slumbering family members with a knife one by one, killing three. "Oh, no, not again," said Mikiko Takahashi, 46, the mother of two boys. "Our society must be out of order."

While U.S. crime rates have dropped dramatically over the past decade, Japan's are going the other way. Though still much lower than the U.S.'s, Japan's crime rates are the highest they have been in 32 years, with violent crime among juveniles accounting for more than half of all those offenses. In the first six months of 2000, violent crime among juveniles increased 15% over 1999. A high school athlete, 17, attacked his teammates with a baseball bat in June, then biked home and fatally bludgeoned his mother. The month before, a teen broke into a house and knifed a woman to death because, he told police, "I wanted to experience killing." The same month, a 17-year-old boy hijacked a bus, forced the driver into a 19-hr. expressway odyssey and killed a passenger along the way. Also in May another teen was accused of severely beating a sleeping commuter-train passenger with a hammer.

These were not crimes of passion, of money, of gangsters. They were crimes of desperation, and they have stirred up a panic about teenagers akin to the consternation in the U.S. after the school shootings of the past few years.

Just as America pointed its finger at teen sociopaths with guns and trench-coat mafias, Japan's reaction has been to blame a subset of societal misfits: the hikikomori (those who isolate themselves). These youths (typically male) shut themselves up in their bedrooms, cutting off contact with the outside world, often for years, into adulthood. "I didn't want anyone to see me, and I didn't want to see anyone," says a hikikomori, 23, who finally came out of his reclusive world a year ago. Some of those accused in the crime spree--including the bus hijacker and a man who kidnapped a girl and held her captive for 10 years--have been identified as hikikomori. Experts estimate that there are 50,000 to 1 million hikikomori. Fear of them has suffused the headlines. In a bizarre twist two months ago, a father and mother confessed to strangling their son because, the parents told police, the teenager had terrorized the family for the past year. Says psychiatrist Takeshi Tamura: "Parents are now afraid of their kids."

Experts are quick to point out that most hikikomori are simply antisocial, not violent. "They don't want to leave their bedrooms," says Hidehiko Kuramoto, an adolescent psychiatrist. "How would they ever have the energy to do these things?" Another counselor says a 47-year-old man he is treating has been a recluse for 28 years. "You can't pinpoint the reason, but you can pinpoint the context: it's Japan," says Sadatsugu Kudo, who runs a recovery center for hikikomori in Fussa, a Tokyo suburb. "In Japan you have to be like other people, and if you aren't, you have a sense of loss, of shame. So you disappear."

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