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Remembering the Sagamihara 19

It was the deadliest massacre of disabled people since World War II. How do we honor the victims if we don’t even know their names?

By David Perry


A mother and her daughter offer flowers for the victims of a knife rampage at the Tsukui Yamayuri En care centre on July 28, 2016, in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

In the early hours of the morning on July 26, a young man in Japan committed the deadliest individual act of violence against people with disabilities in modern history.

In the hours after it happened, I wrote for Pacific Standard about the many ways in which people with disabilities experience violence. Whether it’s forced institutionalization, sexual abuse, murder by parents, or violence in schools or at the hands of law enforcement, people with disabilities are already endangered. Still, there’s an order-of-magnitude distinction between a teacher abusing a student (or a parent killing a child, or a police officer beating a civilian) and the systematic extermination of 19 disabled residents of an institution, along with many others injured. There is literally nothing like it in history. While both war and genocide have exacted heavy tolls on people with disabilities, often intentionally, the massacre at Tsukui Yamayuri En care home for people with disabilities in Sagamihara stands alone.

In the days since, the disability community within Japan and around the world has been reeling, wondering how to react, often wishing they felt more support from non-disabled individuals and groups. The silence has been very loud. Disability-rights organizations around the world have been issuing statements, as have the highest levels of the United States government. A vigil organized by the Disability Visibility Project took place online, an in-person vigil happened in London at the Japanese embassy, and the Japanese branch of the disability-rights organization Inclusion International is collecting statements of sympathy and commemoration. As documented by Kit Mead, writers within the community have been busy expressing their reactions, and the online vigil was active enough that it briefly trended nationally on Twitter under the #SagamiharaDVP hashtag. People have plenty to say. There’s a strong feeling though, expressed by dozens of people during the Twitter vigil, that, outside of Japan, the disability community is just talking to itself. This historically awful massacre just doesn’t seem to matter to anyone else.

A singularly historic and tragic event like this deserves more attention from the world.

The international media has largely let the story go. Both Vox and the Wall Street Journalran pieces on the rarity of mass violence in Japan, focusing largely on what that rarity might say about the American debate around access to firearms. Otherwise, the news cycles have shifted back to the U.S. presidential race, international terrorism, police violence, and the other usual things. News sites such as TheNew Yorker, TheAtlantic, TheNew Republic, Salon, Slate, Time, and Newsweek either ran very short notices when the attack happened or published nothing on Sagamihara. None have published follow-ups. The New York Times ran five stories in the first two days, but has not yet published any in-depth reporting on disability in Japan that might take advantage of the resources of the paper of record to contextualize the loss of life. A singularly historic and tragic event like this deserves more attention from the world.

The history of mass, lethal violence against people with disabilities in the modern era starts with the Nazis, who took long-resident ideas about eugenics and applied them ruthlessly in the program known as Aktion T4. Years before Hitler authorized the mass extermination of Jews, he authorized six medical centers to kill disabled children. There, as Nazi doctors murdered thousands of people, including at least 5,000 children, they developed the tools, technology, and bureaucracy of mass executions that would later be put to such horrific effect in the camps. Soon, concentration camp prisoners who were deemed unfit to work met the same fate as had the disabled Germans, and the Holocaust continued.

More recent genocides, as in all wars, have resulted in mass killings of people with disabilities, but there is as yet little evidence that these murders were specifically based on eugenic ideology. For example, in a 2002 Disability Studies Quarterly article, Art Blaser compares the Holocaust to genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia. Blaser finds a lot of evidence of violence against disabled people, but less evidence of targeting in the modern cases. Still, in Rwanda, there was a wide-scale slaughter of deaf Tutsis by Hutu death squads and a massacre of nearly 750 patients in a psychiatric hospital. In such cases, as today in Syria and in other wars, the vulnerability of people with disabilities makes them easy targets for campaigns of murder.

When it comes to individual acts, though, nothing like the killings in Sagamihara has ever happened. There’s no real script, even within elements of the disability community long used to working against violence. One hopes we’ll never need one again, but part of the way we make sure history doesn’t repeat itself is to find productive ways to respond, to say that disabled lives are worth living, and to support the Japanese community as it recovers.

There’s no reason to give the killer’s horrific views too much publicity or to traumatize readers by describing the minutiae of his carefully planned executions, but some details are required to understand both the horror and the deliberate nature of the crime. The killer broke into the center (where he once worked) at 2 a.m., tied up staff, and used kitchen knives to slit the throats of the victims he chose. He had previously written a letter to local politicians detailing his plan for eugenic murder of disabled people, but no one seems to have believed he would carry out the attack. In statements since the attack, he emphasized that he chose victims who were least able to communicate. Beyond these details, too much time has already been given to his views. It’s always important not to let mass murderers achieve the publicity they desire.

One of the ways to assert the significance of lost disabled lives would be to tell their stories. But Japanese officials and family members have, instead, seen fit to cloak the victims in anonymity.

Unfortunately, in America, we’ve learned a lot about covering mass murder in the last few years. One antidote to focusing on killers has been to honor each victim individually, as, for example, the New York Times did for the victims in Orlando. That attack on the LGBTQ community was, like Sagamihara, an unprecedented mass expression of the violence that a marginalized community already experiences far too often, but at least we know their names, stories, and faces. In Japan, the decision has been made to not release any names, though many Japanese activists have questioned that decision, wondering how it was made and what it means. For their part, Japanese authorities have said, “Because the facility has special characteristics, the bereaved families strongly hope to protect their privacy. We considered those circumstances.” We’ve learned that the victims were nine men and 10 women, from teenagers to septuagenarians, and that a brother of one murder victim “cannot stop weeping.”

We did get one name of a victim who lived. Takako Noguchi, a 45-year-old woman with cerebral palsy survived four stab wounds. She’s non-speaking, but her father told the press about her love for music and the ways she dances. He added, “My daughter was narrowly saved, but I cannot help thinking about how the families of those who died feel,” he said. “Society, too, should share the blame for letting such an incident happen.” The victims who died also had things they liked and disliked, and ways of communicating their desires. I’d like to know their stories too.

Although the language barrier has made reporting difficult, there are signs that the Japanese disability rights community is pushing back against this anonymity. The Japanese independent-living movement, a collaborative effort designed to make community living more possible for more disabled people in Japan, is very concerned. In a Facebook post (quoted with permission), University of Illinois–Chicago professor Akemi Nishida wrote that, even though people are grieving heavily, the Japanese disability community remains active, fighting especially against the government’s attempt to pass off this attack as a mere function of the killer’s mental health. Yes, the killer had been diagnosed with mental illness, but “local activists are bringing up the role of societal ableism to understand this case,” Nishida writes. As for anonymity, “many people are raising voices to problematize the decision not to identify victims.” Yes, family members have requested it, but it can’t be assumed that, by default, family members know what the disabled individual would have wanted.

Part of the way we make sure history doesn’t repeat itself is to find productive ways to respond, to say that disabled lives are worth living, and to support the Japanese community as it recovers.

Nagase Osamu, an Inclusion International Council member who lives in Kanagawa Prefecture, wrote in a statement: “We should be able to learn more from this horrible tragedy by knowing more about each individual. By doing so, we should be able to value each and every life. In order to listen to the voices of those lost, I wish to know more about them.” Osamu also pointed me to last June’s 97-page report from Japan on its progress toward meetings its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which the U.S. has not joined, as it failed to get enough Senate votes). The document details ongoing progress toward more inclusivity, but also the challenges.

I spoke on the phone to Atsuko Kuwana, a disabled Japanese woman now living in Hawaii who has been working on independent living issues for decades. As girl, she was institutionalized in Fukushima Prefecture. She’s disappointed in the Prime Minster’s relative lack of response to the killings and the decision to keep the victims anonymous. Kuwana translated a recent article on intensifying dissent over the anonymity, including a heartbreaking comment from a disabled woman who, visiting the institution for a condolence call, said: “Some of the victims might be my childhood friends. But I have no idea because their names haven’t been made public.” For her part, Kuwana wonders whether parents were really free to decide for themselves, or whether there was pressure from the state because the killings happened in an institution. “It’s not clear reasons to me,” she says of the decision to keep the victims anonymous.

“Who did it? Who decided? The family decided, but who decided?” Kuwana says she has “lots of doubts and suspicions. My personal opinion, ultimate conclusion — because this happened in a public-run, big institution, run by prefecture, they try to hide, they don’t want to show what’s really happening to the public.”

What do we do now? One wants to respect the customs of other cultures (in this case, privacy) while at the same time being concerned that the silence reflects a cover-up of the many failings by officials that made the massacre possible. The killing was expressly an attempt to start disappearing disabled people from the Earth; does the ongoing silence about the victims’ stories contribute to that erasure? We need a lot more discourse — led by Japanese people with disabilities to the extent that language makes it possible — around the killings, the global prevalence of both targeted and collateral violence against disabled people, and the steps we can take to improve matters both locally and globally.

This was the single worst individual act of violence against people with disabilities in history. The killer chose victims who he thought had nothing to contribute and wouldn’t be missed. Don’t let our silence of the deaths of the Sagamihara 19 prove him right.