Two passengers, one male and one female, died Tuesday in an apparent self-immolation aboard a speeding bullet train south of Tokyo.
The man, identified as Haruo Hayashizaki, a 71-year-old resident of Suginami Ward, Tokyo, was near the entrance doors at the front of the Nozomi 225’s lead car when he poured a flammable liquid from a white plastic tank over his head and set it alight, police said.
The man’s corpse was badly charred, the police said, adding they were trying to confirm other circumstances around the incident.
The woman, identified as Yoshiko Kuwahara, 52, of Yokohama, was found at the opposite end of the first car, according to the police and firefighters.
She reportedly died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
A total of 26 passengers sustained injuries, mostly from smoke inhalation, though a small number were also burned, the Odawara Fire Department said.
The man’s motive was unclear as of late Tuesday. The police said he tried to hand a ¥1,000 bill to a female passenger and when she refused to take it, he poured liquid over himself and told her to run away just moments before he set himself ablaze.
The Kanagawa Prefectural Police were investigating the incident as a case of possible arson.
The Nozomi express, operated by Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), was heading from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka Station. It was between Shin-Yokohama and Odawara stations when a passenger in car No. 1 activated the emergency alarm at around 11:30 a.m., and the driver brought the train to a halt.
JR Tokai said the train was carrying around 800 passengers. People in car No. 1, the site of the incident, were moved to car No. 4.
Images aired by TBS TV, apparently taken by a passenger aboard the train, showed a carriage filled with pale smoke after the fire had been extinguished.
All services on that section of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line were temporarily halted. They resumed around 2 p.m. The train moved to Odawara Station, where the passengers were able to exit, JR Tokai said.
When the fire started, passengers in the lead car reportedly scrambled to get to the next car.
After the train halted, police officers, firefighters and JR officials were seen entering the car from the track. Desperate to get out, some passengers jumped down from the cars, covering their mouths with their hands. Firefighters, meanwhile, got into the car by climbing a ladder from the outside.
One person said on Twitter that the car he was in, No. 5, was filled with the smell of burning and that all the lights temporarily went out.
Another Twitter user said that a JR Tokai employee was asking around if anyone was a doctor.
Outside the train, police officers cordoned off the nearby area.
Passengers who evacuated to the back end of the smoke-filled lead car were seen poking their heads out of the windows every now and then, with some seeking external contact via cellphones.
At Shin-Osaka Station, passengers caught up in the service outage flocked to an information counter for an explanation. One of them, Osaka housewife Hitomi Okue, 34, said the fire had undermined her confidence in the safety of bullet trains.
A JR Tokai spokesman said it was the first case of self-immolation involving a passenger on the operator’s train lines. A previous deadly incident involved a passenger prying open the doors of a bullet train and jumping to death, he said.
Tuesday’s incident came almost exactly a year after a middle-aged man in a black suit tried to commit suicide by setting himself on fire in Tokyo.
At the time of that high-profile incident in front of JR Shinjuku Station on June 29, 2014, some Twitter users said the man, whose identity police did not release, was denouncing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to reinterpret the war-renouncing Constitution.
In November, a man died after setting himself on fire in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park, leaving a note protesting the government’s plan to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, or coming to an aid of an ally under attack.
The man was also reported to have protested the proposed relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture.