Sagamihara massacre begs question: Do we want a society that only values usefulness?

Let me apologize up front for tackling an issue that is not purely about labor per se.

The brutal mass murder in July in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, made me feel that our society must address a simple yet difficult question: What does work mean to human beings? I feel that I must candidly convey to you, dear readers, what this tragedy says to me, and then ask you for your opinions.

Late on the night of July 26, a knife-wielding 26-year-old man entered Tsukui Yamayuri En, a home for people with intellectual disabilities. His purpose was to kill all the disabled residents. Since he was a former employee, he knew the layout of the facility, the small number of night-shift workers and other internal details that helped him operate with horrific efficiency.

His target was residents with intellectual disabilities, so he paid particular attention not to kill the nondisabled staff. His first act upon invading the home was to round up staff members and tie them to pillars so they could not interfere with his mission. He worked with deadly resolve toward his goal. Most of the facility’s residents were physically disabled as well.

The man entered the rooms of these intellectually and physically disabled human beings, many of whom were incapable of resistance. He then began slashing at his victims, one by one, room by room.

Nineteen residents with disabilities were killed and 27 were seriously wounded, the worst massacre by a single killer in Japan since World War II.

Some of the survivors have stopped talking since the attack; others now simply stare blankly, their faces betraying no emotion. Some have completely closed themselves off from their families. It pains me even to try to imagine the level of terror and heartache they must have felt.

We happen to know exactly why the self-confessed killer, Satoshi Uematsu, preyed on disabled people who were unable to resist. His face showed nothing but satisfaction at a job well done when he was arrested. He sported a cool, relaxed smile.

Suspects in Japan usually hide their faces or look down when they are arrested. Uematsu’s expression seemed to be telling the cameras, “I did this on behalf of all of you.”

In short, Uematsu’s motivation for the crime was to rid society of what he saw as the nuisance that is severely disabled people. Prior to committing the crime, he posted the following messages to his friends on Line and Twitter:

“It would be better for severely disabled to die.”

“Killing the disabled would benefit Japan.”

“Are people who from birth to death make those around them miserable really human beings?”

“Disabled people should just die. That would relieve their families. I’m going to visit many facilities and kill 600 by October. I will start with the facility where I was.”

Back in February, Uematsu even visited the official residence of House of Representatives Speaker Tadanori Oshima and handed a letter addressed to the speaker to an aide. It read: “I can eliminate a total of 470 disabled people. The exhausted expressions of the parents, the listless pupils of the employees working at the facilities. … My goal is a world in which we can get permission from parents to practice euthanasia. Disabled people are incapable of anything except creating misery.”

It is unclear whether the speaker ever read the letter.

The worst such mass murder since the war. The media chorus labeled it psychotically cruel. They rightly accused the man of being possessed by a twisted bigotry.

But I read a different story on the internet. In web forums, some said, “This crime was too extreme, but what the man said is indeed true”; “He said it on our behalf”; “He said what we all think in our hearts.” The web’s anonymity permits people to say such things, then sit back and enjoy watching their comments go viral. But I fear that society’s inner voice is trending in the direction of these comments.

Our society demands abilityefficiency and results from us all. Corporations are expected to pay high salaries to highly capable staff and to get rid of the incompetent. I have a heard of a company that posted a flyer on the office walls that read: “If you have no ability, then get out!” In today’s world there seems to be a growing tendency to try to justify meritocracy and performance-based wages.

If we look back at the history surrounding disabled people in Japan, however, we see that special policies were devised for this minority, at least after World War II. Under the guise of “protection,” people with and without disabilities have been always segregated — at school, in local communities and at the workplace. This has resulted in special consideration being given to disabled people, but it has also been a type of ostracism that has led to discrimination. Up until three years ago, some mentally disabled people were denied the right to vote, based on the idea that they lacked the capacity to reach clear decisions.

Voices of protest rose against this history of exclusion and discrimination. Disabled people began to fight for their rights. Little by little, normalization and equality were legislated. Finally, this year, the Law to Eliminate Discrimination against People with Disabilities was enacted. This important statute obliges public institutions and corporations to take necessary measures to eliminate factors that impede the opportunities of people based on disability and to ensure that the disabled community can participate on a level playing field alongside the rest of society. In effect, it meant that public institutions could no longer refuse to accept a person based on their disability.

This shift was the achievement of disabled people themselves after long years of struggle. But while there is much that still needs to be done to take such progress further, disabled people should not necessarily be forced to conform to the existing social norms of people without disabilities.

Come to think of it, the word “normalization” itself is problematic. The understanding that “normal” equates with the existing society largely made up of those without disabilities seems to me to be self-centered and arrogant.

Let’s look at the work environment of today, wherein the overwhelming majority do not have a medically recognized disability. What is the “normal” way to work? For many it is an unending hell of unpaid overtime, while others face power harassment from bosses and bullying from colleagues. Women find themselves unable to raise children while holding down a job. People are exploited like machines and discarded when they are no longer useful, subjected to cruel quotas and, in the most extreme cases, driven to karōshi (death from overwork) and suicide by their workloads. And this is “normal”?

Somewhere along the line, our society has gone wrong, a fuse has blown, yet we hustle to compete like fanatics day after day without even knowing why we do what we do. Perhaps it is the majority of so-called able-bodied people who should step back and look at the big picture from the perspective of people with disabilities rather than the other way around. Normalization should not mean assimilating to existing crazy values.

“Be kind, be gentle. Kindness is strength, you know.” These are the words of Mariko Miyagi, who 50 years ago opened Japan’s first-ever facility for physically and developmentally handicapped children, Nemunoki Academy. Since the mass murder, I feel a tug at my heart every time I hear these words.

The 26-year-old man who has confessed to taking the lives of 19 defenseless disabled people was reportedly a cheerful and popular guy. During college, he apparently always acted the strongman and had tattoos all over his body. He took teacher training courses, hoping to become an elementary school instructor. He was apparently very passionate during his teaching internship, particularly when it came to dealing with children.

But in Japan, many people still have a deeply ingrained prejudice about tattoos. Many hot springs and swimming pools bar entrance to the inked due to its association with organized crime groups. (I personally think this is discrimination.) His tattoos forced him to give up his dream of becoming a schoolteacher.

His first place of employment was the very crime scene described above. I have wasted too much of my time vainly wondering whether if even one school had said “You can work here,” it might have set this young man on a very different path. But if his intention behind getting tattoos was only to cultivate an image of strength, then we can only conclude that he was and is a grievously weak man. Only a weak man would try so hard to show his strength with false bravado and convince others that they were weaker than him.

How did Uematsu arrive at the idea that killing people with disabilities could improve society? This has not yet been revealed. My guess — and it’s only a guess — is that he himself had been berated by others for being useless. Perhaps he had experienced serial rejection at work, seen as someone incapable of being a productive member of society. This may have imprinted on his heart the strong normative notion that there is no value in the existence of incompetent people.

Then he happened to find himself among people incapable even of moving freely without the help of others, those constantly in need of such aid — the severely disabled.

Of course, the man’s actions are inexcusable regardless of his background. But at the same time, I think it is too simple to dismiss this horrific massacre as just the inexplicable act of a crazed individual. Perhaps we should not judge people like machines, based only on how they function. Perhaps we should remember the words “Be kind, be gentle. Kindness is strength, you know.” At times like these, it’s something we all need to cling to.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at Labor Pains appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Originally Published in The Japan Times.