Stabbings of Government Officials Stun Japan

Stabbing attacks this week targeting former Health Ministry officials and their wives have shaken Japan, a nation that has suffered a series of assaults on political officials despite its overall low crime rate.

The stabbings, dubbed "terrorist attacks" by the local media, are alarming the nation for a good reason: Public outrage has been growing at the government pension system after 64 million records went missing, leaving many people without pensions. Both of the two targeted officials were retired vice health ministers who were key figures in setting up the pension system 20 years ago.

Takehiko Yamaguchi, 66, a former star bureaucrat, and his wife Michiko, 61, were found dead Tuesday near the doorway of their home in a tranquil middle-class Tokyo suburb after being stabbed repeatedly, police said.

Hours later, the 72-year-old wife of another former vice health minister was stabbed at their Tokyo home by a man disguised as a package delivery boy. She was hospitalized with serious injuries. Her husband, Kenji Yoshihara, was not home.

No one has been arrested. It is unclear if the attacker was the same in both cases, but police say they suspect the two attacks are linked, given their similarities and the victims' backgrounds.

By Wednesday, current and former high-ranking Health Ministry officials were placed under heavy security, metal detectors were installed at the ministry, and officials' names were removed from its Web page.

The prime minister reportedly stopped his morning walks. The emperor and empress canceled a planned trip, the Imperial Household Agency said. And TV news commentators were urging an unguarded Japanese public to be careful when opening doors for deliveries.

Former Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima, himself a victim of an assassination attempt in 1990, said the stabbings comprise "a new wave of terrorism" that Japan must tackle.

Motoshima said the perpetrator was appealing to public frustrations over the pension mess.

The government is still scrambling to match some of the 64 million missing pension records with citizens, some of whom paid large portions of their income over many years and were counting on stable pension checks after retirement.

"But it's out of the question to resort to violence in venting dissatisfaction about health policies," Motoshima wrote in Thursday's nationally circulated Asahi newspaper.

Japan is among the safest nations in the world, with a murder rate of 0.005 per 1,000 people, far below the U.S. rate of 0.04 per 1,000 people. It ranks No. 60 in the per capita murder rate, compared to No. 24 for the U.S., according to Internet data source Nation Master.

But the nation also has a history of attacks against politicians by extremists.

In 1995, Takaji Kunimatsu, then a police chief, was shot by a gunman suspected of links to a doomsday cult he was investigating. The culprit was never caught. Kunimatsu was seriously wounded but survived.

Last year, Iccho Ito, mayor of the southwestern city of Nagasaki, was fatally shot at close range while campaigning on the streets for re-election. A 60-year-old man who police said was a gang member was arrested at the scene. He was tried and sentenced to death.

"These are the kind of people who have their own sense of heroism in sending a symbolic message," Ken Kitashiba, a criminology expert and former police detective, told The Associated Press. "They are probably now giddy with happiness and celebrating."

The motive for Tuesday's attacks remains unclear. But writer Ryuzo Saki, who has authored books on crime, said the attacker wanted "to kill to shock the world."

"He feels like a social hero, and thinks people are going to welcome his deed with applause," he told public broadcaster NHK TV.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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