The owner of a building in Shinjuku, Tokyo, gutted in a fire in 2001 withheld entering a plea Thursday on charges of professional negligence resulting in death.

Five others, who were managing the building or working in it as managers, pleaded not guilty to the same charge. The blaze took the lives of 44 people.

All six men are blaming each other.

Accused are building owner Shigeo Segawa; Kazuo Yamada, whose firm, Kurume Kosan, managed the building; Masayuki Goto, former manager of an adult entertainment club on the building’s fourth floor; and Yoshiji Izawa, Shinji Nagai and Teruji Matsumoto, who are current and former store managers of the mah-jongg parlor on the third floor.

The fire took place in the four-story Meisei 56 building in the Kabukicho entertainment district.

In addition to the dead, three others were injured in the early morning fire on Sept. 1, 2001.

Segawa, 61, told the court he did not know whether it was his responsibility to provide adequate safety measures in the building. When a prosecutor told him that he, as owner of the building, was responsible, Segawa shifted all responsibility to Yamada.

“Yamada was managing everything. It is not part of my work to give such instructions to Yamada,” Segawa said.

Despite evidence presented by the prosecutors, Segawa also denied having seen the building’s staircases, which according to police were clogged with garbage and other items, preventing the victims from escaping.

Segawa’s lawyer told the court, “Segawa owns more than 20 buildings in the Tokyo area alone and is in the same position, for example, as the president or chairman of the Mori Building Co. Are prosecutors advocating that the president (of the major developer) should also have such responsibility for each of his buildings?”

Lawyers for both Segawa and Yamada also argued that to pursue the responsibility of only the owners and managers at this point is negligence on the side of the prosecutors, because the Fire Defense Agency believes arson caused the fire.

“It is a shift of responsibility caused by a lack of ability for them to investigate the real cause of the incident,” they said.

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