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Japan stunned by schoolgirl crime

Crime, Law and Justice

TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- A stunned Japan is searching for answers on Wednesday after an 11-year-old schoolgirl killed a classmate by slashing her throat, the latest in a string of violent crimes committed by children.

Japan, which had long prided itself on being relatively crime-free, has in recent years been confronted by an increasing number of gruesome youth crimes that have prompted it to lower the age of criminal responsibility.

In the latest incident, 12-year-old Satomi Mitarai died of blood loss after she was attacked by a classmate with a knife during the lunch break on Tuesday at their primary school in Sasebo, some 980 kilometers (610 miles) west of Tokyo.

There was no clear motive for the attack, but Japanese media reports said there may have been trouble between the two girls, who were said to be friends, over Internet messages.

The classmate was quoted as telling police she had called Mitarai to a study room where she attacked her. She returned to her classroom with her clothes bloodstained.

"I am sorry. I am sorry," the girl was quoted by the daily Yomiuri Shimbun as telling police in tears during questioning.

Tuesday's killing appeared especially shocking because of the age of the children involved and the fact that both were girls.

"A sixth-grader killing a classmate with a knife. Something like that happening is well beyond imagination," top government spokesman Hiroyuki Hosoda told a news conference on Tuesday.

The Yomiuri reflected the general puzzlement, asking in an editorial, "What sort of connection did these two have? What set it off? Nothing is known."

The victim's widowed father, who lived alone with her and her older brother, said he was in shock.

"That my daughter could no longer be with me is unbelievable. But the unbelievable has happened," Kyoji Mitarai, the local bureau chief of the daily Mainichi Shimbun, told reporters.

"She was like air to me," he added.

Rising crime

In 1997, a 14-year-old schoolboy horrified the nation by murdering two children and leaving the severed head of one of them outside the gates of a school in Kobe, western Japan.

That crime prompted calls for harsher penalties against juveniles, and a law was enacted in 2001 which lowered the age of criminal responsibility to 14 from 16.

Children under 14 cannot be prosecuted, but officials have been reluctant to push the age any lower.

The number of serious crimes by juveniles has continued to rise, however, with the ages of offenders falling.

Last year, a 12-year-old boy in the city of Nagasaki, which is near Sasebo, confessed to abducting and murdering a four-year-old by pushing him off the roof of a parking garage.

According to police figures, the number of minors aged 14 to 19 who committed serious crimes such as murder and robbery rose 11.4 percent to 2,212 in 2003, while the number of offenders under 14 rose 47.2 percent to 212, topping the 200 level for the first time in 16 years.

There have been eight cases where primary school children have committed or attempted murder in the last 15 years.

Police have drawn up new guidelines on fighting juvenile crime, but editorials on Wednesday said more fundamental measures may be needed.

"We must make children understand even more the basic importance of life," the Yomiuri said.

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