It was a short and familiar car ride for Satoshi Uematsu from his home to a care facility where he’d spent many hours as a caretaker for the disabled residents.
It was the early hours of July 26, 2016, and the roads would have been eerily quiet.
No one would have noticed Uematsu, then 26, leaving his home in Sagamihara, a small town near Tokyo in Japan. His parents had moved out a few months earlier.
Uematsu’s neighbours might have seen his trademark blond hair as he drove away and wondered where the friendly, polite young man was going.
They would have been surprised to hear he was going to the care home – after all, he didn’t work there any more.
The Tsukui Yamayuri En residential facility, or Tsukui Lily Garden, was located in almost eight acres of remote woodland and boasted a swimming pool, a gym and medical centre. It was home to around 150 patients aged 19 to 75. They had a variety of mental and physical disabilities, and some were bedridden.
Uematsu’s dad was a school art teacher and he’d tried to follow in his footsteps and had trained to be a teacher, too. But he had ended up working at the care facility where he’d stayed for more than three years until leaving in February 2016.
In Japanese culture, there is still often stigma around having a disabled family member and so they are sent to live in welfare facilities to be cared for by staff. It continues to be a hot debate in the very private country, where disabled people aren’t commonly visible – and campaigners continue to seek change.
Uematsu wanted to do something about the position of disabled people in society and as he parked at his former workplace, and carried a bag towards the building, he put his shocking plan into action. Using a hammer, he broke a window and entered the facility.
When Uematsu came across a staff member, he tied them up and stole their keys. He continued to restrain any staff he encountered – once they saw a knife in his hand, they knew they couldn’t fight back. It was the middle of the night and only nine staff were on duty.
Uematsu then headed towards the rooms where the patients were sleeping. Using one of the knives he’d taken with him, he started to slash the throats of his disabled victims – one after the other.
He continued to other floors, leaving the dead in his wake. Stabbing at their necks, it was methodical, relentless and brutal. Uematsu had strong feelings about the disabled – he believed they had no place in the world and should ‘disappear’.
When other staff members realised what was happening, they called police at around 2.30am. By the time they arrived, Uematsu had gone. Security cameras caught him leaving the premises at 2.50am.
It was a bloodbath and 29 ambulances rushed to the scene. There were 19 dead, aged between 19 and 70. Ten women and nine men. There were 26 more seriously injured.
Uematsu had slipped the net and a very dangerous man was on the loose, but he soon handed himself into a local police station with a bag full of bloodstained knives and tools.
‘I did it,’ he was quoted as telling police officers at around 3am. ‘It is better that disabled people disappear,’ he added.
The young man wasn’t looking to get away with the killings. In fact, Uematsu had even told the authorities what he had in mind, and, in his eyes, the attack had proved to be a huge success.
Just a few months earlier, Uematsu had tried to hand-deliver a letter to a prominent member of Japan’s parliament. It outlined his belief that people with disabilities should be euthanised if their legal guardians agreed.
He had also shared his thoughts with staff at the facility. Uematsu said that they didn’t have any human rights, and such a law would be for the ‘sake of Japan and the world’.
Uematsu said the disabled only ‘create unhappiness’ for society and for the families ‘burdened’ by looking after them. In the letter Uematsu even offered to do the deed himself. He described how he would target a care facility, leave staff unharmed, but swiftly kill around 470 disabled patients before turning himself in.
Despite the appalling suggestion, Uematsu signed his name and added his address and phone number at the end of the letter.
It was passed on to police and he was brought in for questioning where he confirmed his extreme beliefs – influenced partly by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. Uematsu lost his job and was committed to a psychiatric hospital, but he was released in the March, just under two weeks later, as he wasn’t deemed a threat.
However, Uematsu did go through with his plan – and it shocked a country with a relatively low crime rate. The mass killing was described as one of the worst crimes committed on Japanese soil in modern history.
Uematsu’s beliefs were condemned as being inhumane, however, they brought to the forefront the uncomfortable truth that disabled people struggle to find their place in Japanese society.
It was felt even more so when the names and photos of his victims weren’t released to the public – by request of their families, who continued to struggle with the stigma of having a disabled family member.
The mass murder prompted many questions about how disabled people are viewed and treated in Japan.
After being assessed, Uematsu was deemed mentally fit to stand trial and in February 2019, he was charged with 19 counts of murder, 24 counts of attempted murder, several counts of illegal confinement, unlawful entry and weapon charges.
In January this year, Uematsu, now 30, pleaded not guilty on the grounds of diminished capacity. The trial was conducted in front of a jury, which is rare unless the crimes are considered severe, including those eligible for the death penalty.
Over 2,000 people lined up to try to get one of the 26 viewing seats in the public gallery, while the media broadcasted from outside.
Uematsu’s lawyers said that his mental state at the time of the murders meant he didn’t understand what he was doing. They also blamed his judgement on his marijuana use.
‘He was in a condition in which either he had no capacity to take responsibility or such a capacity was significantly weakened,’ his lawyer said.
But the prosecution argued that he was fully responsible and the attack was premeditated so they would be seeking the death penalty. They said what he’d done was ‘inhumane’ and it left ‘no room for leniency’.
Uematsu was found guilty and the judge agreed with the jury’s decision. ‘The crime, which took the lives of 19 people, was extremely heinous and caused damage that is incomparable to any other case,’ he said.
At the sentencing, the mother of one of the victims changed her mind about concealing the name of her daughter, who was 19 and autistic. The teenager had been at the care home just months and her mum shared photos in court.
‘She loved music, she lived as energetically as she could,’ the woman’s statement read. Adding that she saw her daughter two days before her death.
‘Her name was Miho. I want that public as proof that she existed. I want people to know who she was.’ She added that even an extreme penalty would be too light for Uematsu. ‘I will never forgive you,’ she told him. ‘I hate you so much. I want to rip you apart.’
In March this year Uematsu was sentenced to death by hanging. The judge said his actions were ‘so grave it is impossible to compare them to previous cases’, adding that there was no other option than to enforce the death penalty. Uematsu confirmed he would not appeal the decision.
At no point did Uematsu show any remorse for his actions. He continued to insist that there was no point in disabled people living. The legacy of his horrific attack has been a more open discussion about the treatment of disabled people.
Uematsu claimed he’d committed the crime ‘for the sake of society’, but making sure he is never free again is without doubt the best thing for humanity.