SAGAMIHARA, Japan (AP) — The sound of sirens pierced the night, waking residents in a normally quiet, semi-rural neighborhood outside of Tokyo. Some thought it may be an accident, or perhaps a resident at the nearby home for the mentally disabled had fallen ill.
The truth was shocking: A deadly knife attack that left 19 dead at the facility for disabled, made all the more painful because the home was an active member of the community whose residents and staff were generally well-liked.
“They have been well received and blended in the community, and we were on very friendly terms,” 68-year-old Chikara Inabayashi said, while taking care of watermelons in a family garden. “The incident was scary, but that doesn’t change what I think of the place. It’s still an important place for those who need help.”
A former employee broke in about 2 a.m. Tuesday and stabbed more than 40 people, killing at least 19. The Tsukui Yamayuri-en is home to about 150 people, many with serious mental disabilities. It’s in Tsukui district, a semi-rural hilly area in Sagamihara, a city 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Tokyo. Homes are spaced out, and some have vegetable patches.
Inabayashi, who moved to the neighborhood 30 years ago, said that residents sometimes fell ill and ambulances had to be called, but the place was otherwise quiet and the staff joined community activities, such as pulling weeds in parks and other public spaces.
Reiko Kishi, 80, worked as a caretaker at the home for more than 30 years and still lives nearby. She said the facility organizes athletic events and fairs to sell crafts made by its residents. The annual gathering for Japan’s traditional Obon dance festival is the most popular one in town, she said.
“Many of the facility residents cannot communicate very well verbally, because they are rather seriously disabled, but we smile at each other and dance together with the help of caretakers and volunteers,” she said.
“They are all innocent people who have done nothing wrong,” she added. “How can anyone even think of harming them?”
Akie Inoue, walking with her teenage daughter, said her daughter had attended events at the center as an elementary school student and met the suspect.
“They would greet each other when they would meet and she tells me that he was a very kind person,” she said. “We are all very shocked.”
Kishi and Inabayashi, who were both awakened by the sirens, said they would be more careful about locking their doors after the incident. Inabayashi said he never imagined such a horrible thing had happened.
“I was astonished, that’s the only thing I can say,” he said.
Associated Press videojournalist Miki Toda contributed to this story.