IKEDA, Japan — In 15 minutes of horror, a man brandishing a kitchen knife walked into an elementary school Friday and wordlessly began slashing at students, killing eight young children.
The attack, during which the man made his way through four classrooms before being subdued by a teacher and a vice principal, was the worst mass killing in Japan since a deadly nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subways six years ago.
Fifteen people – 13 children and two teachers – were wounded, and eight remained in serious condition Saturday. The suspect, a 37-year-old unemployed man with what police said was a history of mental problems, was taken into custody at the scene.
An unidentified schoolgirl, talking to Japanese reporters, said that during the attack one student somehow managed to get onto the school’s public address system.
“There was a shriek,” the girl said. “Then I heard a cry for help.”
A group of bloodied children fled to a grocery store across the street in the mostly residential suburb of Ikeda, outside Japan’s second-largest city of Osaka, 255 miles west of Tokyo.
“I saw one of them, a boy, with blood all over his body,” cashier Ikiyo Iriye said. “He had been stabbed in the back.” The dead children º seven girls and one boy º were first and second grader, ranging in age from 6 to 8.
On Saturday, National broadcaster NHK television reported that it appeared from the location of stab wounds to the back that some of the children were chased down as they fled and that interrogation would focus on the motive for the attack.
An Osaka prefectural (state) police spokesman could not confirm the contents of the report. However, police did say they were intensifying their investigation.
Japan has long enjoyed a crime rate much lower than that of other developed nations, but that is changing. The Japanese are asking themselves why, and wondering what can be done about it. Violent crime is on the rise, and strict gun laws mean most of the attacks are committed with knives.
Friday’s slashing was the deadliest mass assault in Japan since a doomsday cult released sarin gas on the Tokyo subways in 1995, killing 12 people and sickening thousands.
The attack came as children were anticipating a day off Saturday for the annual local iris festival. The festival was canceled and classes were suspended indefinitely.
Police identified the attacker as Mamoru Takuma and said he used a kitchen knife with a six-inch blade. After his arrest, he was taken to a hospital with what were reportedly self-inflicted wounds, then turned over to police, a blue hood hiding his head, blood splattered across his legs.
It was not clear what might have led to the attack. Police said the suspect told them he had taken 10 times the daily dose of an unspecified anti-depressant.
Takuma told police he was “sick of everything” and wanted to be caught and executed, a police official in Osaka said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He told police he had tried to kill himself repeatedly but always failed, the official said.
Authorities said Takuma told police he’d been having trouble sleeping and considered trying to kill himself Friday morning, but then got in his car, put a bag holding the knife on the seat next to him and drove into Ikeda from his home in nearby Mino.
Takuma was arrested in March 1999 and accused of putting a tranquilizer in the tea of four teachers at a school where he worked as a janitor, but he was never prosecuted because he had psychological problems, said Nobuharu Sugita, a police official in Itami, near Osaka.
Two of the children stabbed Friday died at the scene. The other six died at a hospital, Fire Department spokesman Tetsuo Higashimoto said.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called the attack “heartbreaking.”
Osaka Gov. Fusae Ota said authorities were sending psychiatrists to offer counseling to the children. “We’re doing what we can for them,” she said. “This is unforgivable”
The bloodshed began when the attacker walked into a ground-floor classroom from a terrace during a break in the morning lesson, while students sat in rows at their desks, police said.
He began slashing at the children in the back of the room, then moved into the hall without saying a word, and made his way through three more classrooms before being subdued.
After the attack, hundreds of children in navy school uniforms sat in rows on the playground as fellow students received treatment on stretchers nearby. Later, frantic parents raced into the hospital where the wounded children were taken.
The mother of a 10-year-old fifth grader said her son told her he and his classmates were taking a break after a lesson when they were rushed out onto the playground.
“He can’t believe something like that could have happened,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “It’s almost like he was having a dream.”
The elite school operated by Osaka Education University has nearly 700 students.
“This kind of thing should never happen,” Education Minister Atsuko Toyama said. “Schools should be places where children can feel safe and secure.”