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Friday, Feb. 6, 1998

Teens fall for 'fashionable' butterfly knives


Staff writer

One evening recently, Ryuhei Mizumoto was examining dozens of knives in a glass display case in a shop in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward.

"I like looking at knives," said the 19-year-old public servant, clad in a light-blue jacket and wool cap. "I think they're kind of beautiful." A comment like Mizumoto's may seem innocuous enough, but for many people, knives have recently taken on a disturbing allure -- they are the perfect weapon for teenagers.

On Jan. 28, a 13-year-old schoolboy stabbed his 26-year-old teacher to death in Kuroiso, Tochigi Prefecture. Two days later, a 16-year-old high school student was arrested after assaulting a 16-year-old girl with a kitchen knife during class in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Then on Monday, a 15-year-old boy was arrested for attacking a bicycle patrolman in Tokyo with a knife while trying to steal the officer's pistol. The sudden surge in knife attacks has frightening implications. Unlike guns, knives are easily available in Japan.

After Monday's attack on the patrolman, top government officials, including Mitsuhiro Uesugi, chairman of the National Public Security Commission, hinted at a possible review of the Firearm and Sword Control Law. The law currently bans people from carrying -- without a legitimate reason -- knives with a blade longer than 6 cm. People are, however, allowed to own longer knives.

Many shops in Tokyo have stopped stocking butterfly knives, which have been the weapon used in some of the recent attacks perpetrated by teenagers. The knives usually surpass the 6 cm threshold.

But why butterfly knives? The knives take their name from their open-and-close action, which resembles the movement of a butterfly's wings, industry officials say.

The folding knives became popular in the U.S in the 1980s, helped at least in part by a spate of action movies featuring the weapons. Ironically, it was the Japanese blades that supported the American craze.

Chiaki Miwa, secretary general for a cutlery manufacturer association in Seki, Gifu Prefecture, recalls that the city's cutlers exported about 240,000 butterfly knives to the U.S. every month for nearly two years in the early 1980s. But incidents involving knife-wielding youngsters forced many states to outlaw sales of the knives and ended the export boom, Miwa said.

In recent months, youngsters here have also started to carry the weapons, and are finding themselves in trouble. Sales of such knives to teenagers began to soar around the time a TV drama series featuring pop star Takuya Kimura was aired between last April and June, sources say.

The drama series showed scenes of the heartthrob skillfully flipping his knife. Many knife outlets concede the knives' sales have gone up recently, but clam up when asked how many they have sold or who their customers are.

"We always ask our customers what they will use the knives for," said the manager of a knife shop in the Ameya Yokocho shopping arcade in Ueno, Tokyo, where small specialty shops cluster under elevated rail lines. He claimed the store refuses to sell butterfly knives to people who say they want them because they are "fashionable."

Signs inside the shop remind customers that it is against the law to carry the knives, and that minors need parental approval before they can purchase one. In the store, several types of butterfly knives, with silver, gold or black handles, are on display. Prices vary from 2,500 yen to about 20,000 yen.



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