Random Killings Are Not Acts of Evil Demons

Society Culture

Horrific Knife Attack in Osaka

On June 10, in a bustling commercial area called Shinsaibashi in the middle of downtown Osaka, a terrible knife attack occurred, with two passers-by being killed.

When I was a newspaper reporter on the police beat, I used to wander around this area, also known as the Minami district, every day. The street of the crime scene is familiar to me, and I still retain a sense of the comforting quiet that descends upon you once you escape the crowded main thoroughfare. The familiarity makes the horror so much closer to home; even as I write, I have a tangible sense of the terror of having someone suddenly appear in that quiet back street, thrashing about with a knife, out for blood.

Typically in these multiple murder cases, most of the Japanese press tend to label them tōrima cases. The literal translation of tōrima would be “a demon or monster randomly passing by.” But when I was a police beat reporter, I was taught not to use that phrase, not to “unnecessarily blow up the story to make it more lurid.” The newspaper I was with at the time still does not use the phrase tōrima when reporting the Shinsaibashi killings. Instead, it refers to it as the “random killings in Osaka,” or the “random murders in Minami.” The suspect is not a “demon randomly passing by,” but the “suspect in a random murder.”

Is that description not sufficient?

I dislike the phrase tōrima because the culprit is a human being, not a supernatural evil creature. The horror stems from the realization that a human being can suddenly turn into something so demonic; a creature that can thrash about with a knife in the middle of the street and randomly kill people he does not know. That is why these tragedies are so horrendous.

The Demon Within Us All?

If I were to borrow a theme from the works of the popular mystery novelist Kyōgoku Natsuhiko, one could perhaps say that the real horror comes from the danger, lurking deep within us all, that we may suddenly turn into an evil demon-like creature; that we are all so vulnerable to a sudden freakish something that can overcome us, consume us, and turn us into monsters. But I think that such a literary, dramatic perspective is neither necessary nor useful in the initial reporting of a tragic event.

Or as the philosopher Inoue Enryō proposed in his Yōkaigaku (A Study of Monsters), some monster legends and ghost stories may have originated from real life events, and certain monsters, goblins, and the like may be abstract amalgamations of something historically specific. Japanese examples that quickly spring to mind are the oni (ogre) and the tsuchigumo (the ground spider). In classical literature and theatre, the ogre and the ground spider are creatures to be ostracized and conquered, but some theories say the phrases oni and tsuchigumo used to be derogatory terms for people and clans that defied the ruling powers of the time and were defeated. Another classic example is Sugawara no Michizane (845–903), an aristocrat and a scholar, banished from the emperor’s court in Kyoto after losing a political battle, then dying in bitter exile. After his death, his contemporaries so feared his wrath that they first treated him as a vengeful god who brings retribution upon those who wronged him, and then eventually elevated him to a more benign form of deity, as a god of wisdom and learning. To put it simply, more often than not, myths and ghost stories have some basis in historical fact.

Ghost stories and myths are told and retold in a similar manner in most places, not just Japan. A more modern example might be The Blair Witch Project, where the concept of an actual incident turning into a ghost story was turned on its head. Moreover, the mythologist Joseph Campbell advocated that there is a universality to the narratives presented in the myriad of myths throughout the world.

The Need to Alienate the Attacker

Is there not some universal basic human need at work here, in both the media and the general public, where there is such a hurry to turn the telling of a vicious crime into a horror story? Is it a need to draw a line between “him” and “us”? A need to feel that such monstrous acts have nothing to do with “me”? And that such heinous crimes defy any sort of comprehension and do not need to be understood because it was a demon that did it?

Drawing such a line is the first step toward prejudice and discrimination; that such different beings are “demons” and “evil” and so must be driven out of our “decent human society.” It is one thing for literature and theatre to deal with expressions that can potentially lead to discrimination and ostracism, but are such phrases necessary in objective criminal reporting? I find this hard to swallow.

The streets of Osaka’s Minami district were a part of my everyday life. The man who turned them into a violent crime scene with his knife was a human being, not a monster or a demon. That is what makes it all the more terrifying. (June 16, 2012)

(Originally written in Japanese. Translated into English by the author.)

Kato Yuko media Osaka culture accident torima knife attack Minami yokaigaku Inoue Enryo Shinsaibashi Kyogoku Natsuhiko