A Deadly Golden Week

While his classmates prepared for vacation, a 17-year-old Toyokawa teen left school on May 1 and "went out to kill." He allegedly crept inside a nearby home, bludgeoned an old woman with a hammer, then stabbed her in the face with a knife from her own kitchen. Two days later another blade-wielding teen commandeered a bus in Fukuoka and staged a marathon highway chase broadcast live on national TV. On the bus, the suspect, also 17, allegedly stabbed three women, killing a 68-year-old -- deeds he recorded with a camera taken from one of the hostages. Police with stun grenades finally stormed the bus and freed nine passengers, among them a 6-year-old girl held at knife-point for most of the 15-hour ordeal. The tandem killings shocked the nation that had shut down for Golden Week, the cherished annual spring holidays. "Can this really be just a coincidence?" pondered a Yomiuri Shimbun editorial. "We cannot help but feel it points to something sinister."

In Japan, serious crime is at a 23-year high, and criminologists warn that the young generation will be the most violent ever. Last week experts crowded onto talk shows to blame Japan's woes on the Internet, a pressure-cooker school system, violent TV shows and videogames, and the collapse of traditional families. For millions, the debate dominated -- and ruined -- the holiday. "This was a dark week, not Golden Week," lamented housewife Yoshie Abe, 65. "We talked about nothing but the two murders."

The scariest part is that the alleged killers could have been the boys next door. Both were gifted students. The Toyokawa teenager reportedly was popular with peers, respected by neighbors and ranked near the top of his class. After the killing, he stashed his bloody uniform, fled town with cash stolen from home and hid overnight in a public toilet. According to police, the next day he turned himself in, confessing he murdered the old woman to "experience killing people." The hijacker, too, was a high-achiever. He was bullied in junior high and quit high school after nine days. He spent most of the next two years in his room. In March, his parents admitted him to a mental hospital. Doctors released him on May 3 to go home for the holiday. Once free, he bought a carving knife and hijacked the bus.

Akira Fukushima, a psychiatrist at Tokyo's Sophia University, argues that teens need more nurturing that "brings them closer to living things." Others proffer tough love. They favor amending Japan's liberal Juvenile Law, which shields the anonymity of underage lawbreakers and lets them walk free at 20. Japan's National Police Agency, meanwhile, is under pressure to improve its performance against violent criminals -- kids included. Until that happens, Japan can hardly rest easy -- even during Golden Week.