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Editorial: Care home massacre trial failed to tackle roots of prejudice in Japan society

Satoshi Uematsu, who murdered 19 people and wounded 26 more at the Tsukui Yamayuri En care home for people with disabilities in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, in July 2016, was sentenced to death on March 16, 2020 at the Yokohama District Court. Uematsu has indicated thus far that he will not appeal.

The trial spanned 17 public hearings, and throughout them all the defendant continued to insist that "people who can't communicate are a burden to society," referring to the severely disabled residents of the care home where he once worked. Though he apologized for the killings, Uematsu never even attempted to reform his discriminatory thinking. This fact alone seems certain to have caused unbearable pain to the victims' families.

Testimony from people around Uematsu and other evidence revealed his prejudice against those with disabilities grew during his time as a Tsukui Yamayuri En staffer. However, Uematsu said himself that he did not decide to murder the residents until he was committed to a hospital for psychological issues, after sending a letter to the speaker of the House of Representatives suggesting killing people with disabilities.

However, it is difficult to say that the trial revealed what the background or causes were for Uematsu to keep saying that some human lives are worth less than others, and that brought him to carry out such a horrific act.

Regarding his time working at the care home, Uematsu stated that looking at how the other staff barked at the residents and otherwise administered care, "I wondered if I'd eventually stop being able to treat (the residents) as human beings, too." He also admitted to having a psychological complex. However, the trial did not delve into how Uematsu's work and involvement with disabled people, as well as his background, impacted the killing spree.

This was a lay judge trial including a panel of regular citizens, meaning that the proceedings had a time limit. And in that restricted timeframe, the main point of contention was narrowed down to whether Uematsu's marijuana use had impacted his legal competency. But this was a crime that dealt a serious blow to Japanese society as a whole, and thus the trial should have been lengthened to allow truly deep and careful consideration of all the incident's aspects.

Beyond the courthouse walls, the Ministry of Heath, Labor and Welfare's reaction to the massacre stopped at a review of the standards and procedures for committing a person to a hospital on mental health grounds. There was no attempt to uncover any possible problems with government policy on people with disabilities.

There are many people with disabilities and their families who were left terrified by Uematsu's killing spree, targeted as it was at people just like themselves. Perhaps they could feel the sharp prick of the discriminatory gazes directed at those in the weakest positions in our society.

Though guilty of nothing, almost all the victims' families decided not to release the names of their loved ones during the trial. This fact alone speaks to how deep the prejudice against disabled people remains in our country.

This mass killing case cannot be dismissed as the murderous act of one deranged man. There were specialists who continued to interview Uematsu throughout the judicial process, and their opinions will be important to consider. In short, we as a society must continue to think on the meaning of that bloody day in Sagamihara.

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