Years of the Knife – The Stabbing Culture in East Asia

TAIPEI/TOKYO – What is this East-Asian obsession with blades and stabbings that has perverted these otherwise harmonious quarters of Confucian legacy?


The knife seems to be the preferred device of killing frenzies in those countries that restrict or ban firearms. Shooting fall-outs are rare from Beijing to Hong Kong, from Shanghai to Seoul, from Hong Kong to Tokyo. So, the hoodlums go out instead with kitchen blades, cleavers, and jackknives.

The latest killings happened just today at around 4 pm in a Taipei subway station. A 21-years old man allegedly boarded a crowded section of the train and knifed down at least 25 passengers, four of whom died in their blood. A relative in law of your author was struck three times –in her defense arm, her back, and, when she escaped, her fleeting ankle. She is in hospital, in stable condition, but still under shock. So is the entire island of Taiwan. Such random eruptions of violence are relatively rare in orderly Taipei, they say. Now they know it can happen any time.

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China

Stabbings are far more common in mainland China, although not always as widely reported as the Henan school knife attack in 2012 that witnessed 23 (barely out of kindergarten) kids with severe stab wounds. You can watch the video here (warning: it’s gruesome!). The perpetrator was clinical insane, or so he confessed. Henan authorities promptly advised all schools to hire security guards, which is –as everyone familiar with China knows –a gargantuan task of impossible dimensions –Henan alone administers 100 million citizens.

There are many more stabbings to speak of, in fact, just toady there occurred another knife massacre in the city of Lushan of Henan province. Seven neighbors lost their lives to a lunatic. Small villages are in particular vulnerable. Cutlery is sold left and right in the streets.

And then there was the Kunming Mass Stabbing in March 2014. It was so brutal and violent in scope and execution –the state denounced it as terrorist attack. Over 130 people were slashed, hacked, and ended, leaving 29 dead. The stabbers, four of them shot on the scene, came from Xinjiang, a region where –because of ethnical and political tensions- stabbings occur frequently.

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Knives are often worn in public in Xinjiang and Tibetan, and are in fact among the most popular souvenirs. Yet, of course, stabbings are most media-effective if they occur in public places in the big cities. Just weeks after the Kunming massacre, for example, six people were gruesomely stabbed down at Guangzhou Railway Station in Guangdong.

Blades are typically the preferred fetish of death of serial killers, although the one or other shovel, hammer, or axe is frequently thrown in. Your author still recalls the time at Fudan University of Shanghai in summer 2003 when the killing spree of Yang Zhiya had kept the region in fear. He had early childhood dreams of murder and rape, his family concurred; and in 2000 the thug set out on his bike, smashing, chopping, and annihilating entire families on his trip. (He was executed in 2014, just three month after his arrest, a fast-track to ease the pain of the nation.)

Korea

Korea is constantly on knife-alert, too. True, stabbing rampages such as the 2008 Seoul incident are still uncommon. Yet, the country is under constant terror by frequent so-called rush-hour knifings (or crowd-stabbing, if you will).

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Japan

Tokyo, as well, had its unfair share of mayhem. The Japanese, stricken already by the highest suicide rate anywhere in this galaxy, and smitten by frequent earthquakes and tsunamis, are forever haunted by images of Tomohiro Kato, a 25-year-old ‘otaku’ (loosely translated as geek or nerd) drove a truck into a crowd at Tokyo’s busy Akihabara district (known as Electronic Town, popular with young people and tourists). After he steamrolled the pedestrians, he jumped out of the vehicle and stabbed some more. Seven people died. The list of knife crimes in Japan –even if the Yakuza is excluded- is wickedly long.

The imagery of knife-wielding "losers" –mostly young, male, underemployed, mentally ill- haunts East Asian citizens during their rush-hours, partly because there are potentially so many of them.

As one psychologist at Seoul National University once quipped it:

“Pent-up frustration and rage in a highly competitive society have caused the recent attacks against indiscriminate victims, and this was compounded by copy-cat behavior.”

If this is a correct observation, and we have reason to think it is, then governments have to address the causes of this spreading social sickness, and do so quickly.

It is very wise of East Asian authorities to categorically outlaw the possession of guns and rifles. But how do they prevent dangerous men from visiting a kitchen.

Image credit: Burlingham/Shutterstock

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.