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, the police said.
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, a man, was in critical condition, Japan’s public broadcaster NHK said.
It was an astonishing burst of violence in Japan, where gun-related homicides and other gun incidents are rare. Laws governing the purchase and ownership of firearms in Japan are among the strictest in the world.
Official details were scant in the immediate aftermath, but the suspect had not been arrested as of late Thursday evening after retreating into a house belonging to a local elected official, news reports said. The police confirmed late Thursday that two women had escaped from the house.
About 60 nearby residents were evacuated to a local junior high school, and the police warned others to stay indoors.
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 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 the police car, the suspect shot twice and fled the scene again.
The apparent brutality in first emerging details of the assault, including the stabbing of a woman in public and the killing of the police officers, made it ”an extremely rare” incident, 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 is also bound to trigger memories of the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was fatally shot with a handmade gun last year.
“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 have pass an extensive background check and a police inspection of the gun safe and ammunition locker used to store the weapons.