THE housing complex in Tokyo's Koto ward was a typically peaceful place until 5-year-old Ayako Nomoto was kidnapped earlier this month. Five days later her dismembered torso was discovered lying in the open in a cemetery in the neighboring Saitama Prefecture, the fourth victim of what police say is a serial killer. ``This country is going crazy,'' says Tomi Hirano, a resident, sitting on a bench in the park. Only a few young mothers stand tensely nearby, never taking their eyes off their children.
This is only the latest in a series of horrifying crimes that have received massive coverage in the Japanese media for the last six months. Recent examples include:
In Saitama Prefecture, Ayako's killer is believed to have kidnapped and murdered two more girls; another is still missing.
In Tokyo, a group of teenaged boys kidnapped a high school girl, raped and beat her to death, and dumped her body in a drum filled with concrete.
A senior newspaper writer was beaten to death on the street by a motorcycle gang when he complained about their noise.
Two Tokyo policemen were stabbed to death by a 20-year-old man.
These crimes are all the more shocking for their relative rarity in a country that is known for its low crime rate. Tokyo is considered one of the safest cities in the world, with a homicide rate in 1987 of 1.3 per 100,000 people, compared to 23 per 100,000 in New York City.
Police and psychological analysts say they don't know why this series of violent crimes is happening now. Some see the answer in Japan's growing affluence, which they say is feeding a sense of alienation, particularly among the young. With affluence has come the emergence of an urban lifestyle that is breaking down the close social ties that have been a key to controlling crime here.
``I cannot deny that murders have become more atrocious and brutal, especially recently,'' says a National Police Agency official, even though he admits that the number of such crimes has actually decreased. In the past, police trying to solve homicide cases looked for motives such as hatred, anger, and jealousy. But no clear motive has been found for the series of recent crimes.
``There is enough bread. And everyone looks happy. But they think something is missing,'' says Yukio Akatsuka, social commentator. ``Committing a crime has become an end in itself, not a means to obtain bread or money,'' he explains. In these times of prosperity, people who feel alienated from society tend to escalate their brutality to assert their existence through the mass media. ``They can be a great person there.''
Rather than directly associating with others, urban residents tend to spend longer hours in the fictional world found on television. Analysts say this may be creating the media-conscious criminals such as the person who carried out the series of child abductions.
``They may not be able to recognize reality unless what they are doing is confirmed by others on the information screen,'' says crime writer Kyoji Asakura. ``Since the world around them is such a vacuum, they don't feel the cruelty of their acts as we do,'' he suggests.
The pressure for achievement in Japan makes it ``a tough society'' for those who don't make it, says a criminal psychologist at the National Research Institute of Police Science. At school, students are measured by how they do in exams which determine whether they advance to the best colleges. In business, they are again judged by how much they sell. Without good scores, ``people are labeled as dropouts even if they are good human beings,'' the psychologist explains.
``This is the only criterion for Japanese and we are measured by this for life,'' the psychologist adds.
``Emotional understanding of what killing means has not developed among young people,'' says Fumio Mugishima, psychology professor at Tokyo's Teikyo University. ``Consideration for others is established in developing friendships. But such emotional development has been slowing down,'' he says, due to weakening human relations.
Japanese police are known for their ubiquitous presence and efficiency in solving crimes. But the police system depends on the cooperation of Japanese residents, who interact far more closely with police than do their American counterparts. The close social ties within families and between neighbors, carried from village roots, has served to isolate criminals.
But the increasing anomie of Japanese city life is making it harder for police to do their job.
The arrest rate decreases every year as witnesses are increasingly hard to find. In a Tokyo apartment complex, even neighbors rarely see each other. The articles left behind at the scene of a crime no longer help much - they are usually mass-produced items. ``To be honest, it's difficult to raise the arrest rate drastically,'' the Police Agency official admits.
The stable family structure is under increasing pressure. Japanese families find it difficult to deal with the impact of a growing number of working women and old people who are living long lives, says Mr. Asakura. There is a sense of a loss of direction, of confidence in the future, fed even by such events as the Recruit Company political corruption scandal. Recruit, a publishing and telecommunications firm, gave large amounts of money and unlisted shares to leading politicians, officials, and businessmen.
``Such situations may stir up people to do (senseless crimes),'' the crime writer says. ``To put it in an extreme way,'' the police agency official says, ``this is an era when there is no wonder if your neighbor turns out to be a criminal.''