A man armed with a rifle and knife killed a woman and two police officers and injured another person on Thursday in the central Japanese city of Nakano before fleeing and shutting himself inside a home for several hours, the police said.
It was an astonishing burst of violence in Japan, where gun-related homicides and other gun incidents are exceedingly rare. Laws governing the purchase and ownership of firearms in Japan are among the strictest in the world.
The attacker, who reportedly told a witness he “wanted to kill,” stabbed the woman before opening fire on police officers arriving on the scene. The fourth victim, also a woman, was in critical condition, the Japanese public broadcaster NHK said. Earlier reports misidentified the fourth victim as a man.
The police said that the suspect was captured early Friday morning after retreating into a house close to the city center. The home belonged to a local elected official, whom NHK identified as the suspect’s mother. The police confirmed late Thursday that two women had escaped from the house.
On Friday, NHK identified the suspect as Masanori Aoki, a 31-year-old farmer, and said he had been arrested on a murder charge in connection with the death of one of the police officers. More charges were expected.
A witness to the attack told NHK that he was working in a field when a young woman ran toward him, pleading for help as a man wearing camouflage, a hat and a mask chased after her. The man then stabbed her in the back, causing her to fall down, and then stabbed her again in the chest.
“I asked him, ‘Why you are doing this?’” the witness told the broadcaster. “He answered, ‘I killed her because I wanted to kill.’”
The suspect left the scene but returned with a rifle after two police officers arrived in response to the stabbing, the witness said. Holding the muzzle against the window of their police car, the suspect shot twice and fled the scene again.
About 60 nearby residents were evacuated to a local junior high school, according to local media, and the authorities had warned others to stay indoors.
The brutality in the emerging details of the assault, including the stabbing of a woman in public and the killing of police officers, made it “an extremely rare” event, said Dr. Fabio Gygi, chairman of the Japan Research Centre at SOAS University of London.
“A direct attack on police is also a direct attack on authority in general,” he said. “There is something very shocking about that.”
It was also bound to trigger memories of the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was fatally shot with a handmade gun last year, he said.
“The shock of the assassination is still so raw,” Dr. Gygi said. “It hasn’t been even a year.”
In all of 2022, just nine gun-related incidents were reported in Japan, which has a population of 125 million people, according to the National Police Agency. Four people died from gun crime in that period.
Firearms are not permitted in the country, in principle, with exceptions for hunting. To obtain a license, a person must go through a 12-step process — a laborious and expensive process that few people undertake.
It includes a gun-safety class, passing a written exam and getting a doctor to sign off on the physical and mental health of the gun buyer. Gun buyers must pass an extensive background check and a police inspection of the gun safe and ammunition locker used to store the weapons.