Photo/IllutrationPeople line up for a chance to win a seat at the Yokohama District Court, where the trial of a man accused of killing or injuring 45 people opened on Jan. 8. (The Asahi Shimbun)

Trial proceedings got under way Jan. 8 at the Yokohama District Court in the case of a man accused of killing 19 residents at a care home for people with disabilities in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 2016.

The sheer number of victims and the defendant’s discriminatory remarks concerning people with disabilities sent shock waves through Japanese society.

“Disabled people are not worthy of living,” Satoshi Uematsu, 29, a former employee at the facility, repeatedly said after he was arrested.

The trial should serve as a fresh opportunity for Japanese society to reflect on social and other factors behind the crime.

At the first hearing, Uematsu admitted to fatally stabbing 19 people and injuring 26 others, including staff members, at the Tsukui Yamayurien facility on July 26, 2016, and offered his “deep apologies.”

But Uematsu then disrupted the hearing with erratic behavior. He hunched over and appeared to clamp his hands around his neck, prompting court officers to restrain him.

The proceedings were adjourned and later resumed in his absence.

Defense lawyers entered a plea of not guilty on grounds their client was not mentally fit to take responsibility for his actions. They said he was unable to control himself at the time due to the effects of marijuana and an underlying psychiatric disorder.

The main issue in the trial is whether the defendant can be held responsible for his crimes, and to what extent, given his mental state.

Since he was arrested, Uematsu has willingly spoken with media representatives. In interviews, he insisted that what he did was right and explained, to some extent, about how he developed his beliefs concerning people with disabilities.

But many important questions remain unanswered. As an employee at the facility, he was in daily contact with people with disabilities and had developed a considerable understanding about them.

One question is why he acquired such distorted perceptions about people with disabilities. Another is what triggered his acts of violence. We also want to know whether his behavior was in any way linked to the environment in which he was born and raised.

There will likely be opportunities for the families of some victims to ask the defendant questions.

We hope the trial will offer at least some clues to these and other important issues.

Most victims will be called by such codes as “Ko A” or “Otsu B” to maintain their anonymity. A part of the gallery in the courtroom was partitioned to keep the families of victims hidden from the view of other spectators.

The special arrangements were made in response to requests from victims’ families due to their fear, through no fault of their own, of prejudice and discrimination against them and those with disabilities.

These measures reflect the reality of Japanese society, where one person's personality alone never explains what truly lies behind a crime.

Uematsu partially explained his motives by telling a reporter in an interview, “I wanted to be useful (for society).”

His comment was clearly based on flawed logic. But there is no denying the tendency in society to measure the value of all things, even human lives, in terms of such criteria as usefulness, efficiency and cost effectiveness.

Only last year, our society finally searched its collective soul over a decades-long eugenics program and established a law to compensate victims. Under the program, people with disabilities or genetic diseases were forcibly sterilized to prevent "the birth of inferior offspring."

The preamble of the relief law states, “We renew our determination to make all possible efforts to realize an inclusive society.”

In reality, though, plans to build new care homes for people with disabilities often provoke opposition from the local communities.

The Sagamihara case poses grave challenges to our society. It demands that we all confront deep-rooted prejudices, both in ourselves and society at large, and continue to question our actions.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 9