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Sunday, November 4, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shooting leaves Japanese jittery over influx of guns

Los Angeles Times

TOKYO — A Japanese gangster opened fire Friday afternoon in a crowded train station in Kobe, injuring a policeman and a commuter after he was caught trying to peek under a woman's skirt, Japanese police said.

The incident, which occurred at rush hour, was unsettling in a nation where guns are rare and crime rates low by international standards.

"I commute every day by train at peak time," said Kaori Sano, a 32-year-old office worker living in Tokyo. "For someone to take out a gun and shoot is unbelievable. It's really dangerous; it feels like nothing is secure these days."

The suspect, Masakazu Kubota, 52, was noticed by police on an escalator in Kobe's Sannomiya station using a mirror to try to see under a woman's skirt, said an official with the Hyogo Prefecture Police Department.

According to the authorities' account, when the police moved in to arrest him, Kubota pulled a gun out of a nylon bag and fired a shot at the ground. The officers then tried to wrestle the weapon away, but he reportedly used the gun to bludgeon one of them. He then fired a second shot, grazing a 57-year-old commuter on the chin, the police official said.

Kubota, a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate, was arrested for attempted murder and illegal possession of a firearm. Neither of the victims' injuries was life-threatening.

The Kobe and Osaka region is a base for many Japanese mafia, or yakuza, and until about 20 years ago, Japan's strict gun-control laws made firearms extremely rare.

But more recently, the number of guns seized or used in crimes has risen sharply, said Masaaki Noda, a professor and criminologist at Kyoto Women's University.

"Customs officials are not tough enough," he said. "The yakuza are now bringing them in all the time."

What many people found disconcerting about this latest incident, however, was that it appeared to break the yakuza's own code of behavior.

Occasional shootings by yakuza occur, but they tend to be turf battles between rival gangs — not random shots involving innocent people.

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