National / Media | DARK SIDE OF THE RISING SUN

Re-examining 2001's fatal Kabukicho blaze in the wake of the Kyoto Animation attack

by Jake Adelstein

Contributing Writer

Police have described the torching of Kyoto Animation, which killed 35 people, as the worst case of arson in postwar Japan. Given the shocking details of the attack that have emerged since July 18, it’s certainly not hard to believe.

For me, the fire brought back memories of another blaze in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district on Sept. 1, 2001, that claimed 44 lives.

The blaze broke out in the four-story Meisei 56 Building, with firefighters suspecting that it may have been caused by a broken gas pipe near the staircase landing on the third floor.

Forty-seven people were eventually hospitalized, with 32 men and 12 women later confirmed dead. Although arson was initially suspected, investigators subsequently found that the building was in clear violation of the Fire Service Law.

No evacuation ladders or chutes were installed on the second and third floors, stairways were blocked and fire doors weren’t maintained.

In July 2008, the Tokyo District Court found five people guilty of professional negligence in connection with the safety measures that were in place.

The building housed a number of entertainment venues, including restaurants, sex clubs and game parlors. A popular school girl-themed bar called Super Loose operated on the fourth floor.

Victims would typically be identified in such tragedies, but the shady reputation of some of the establishments in the building spurred many domestic media organizations to tread delicately around the issue.

Unfortunately, this reluctance to name the victims more than likely hindered the police’s investigation of the case.

One of the officers at Shinjuku Police Station who worked the case says the lack of photographs in the public eye ultimately handicapped the investigation.

“There is sometimes good that comes out of what some people see as ghoulish coverage of a disaster,” the officer recalls, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the existing nature of his work. “People see the names and photos of the deceased and the tragedy suddenly seems to be more real. It encourages people to come forward with information. … That didn’t happen in this case. The victims of the fire were treated like pariahs, which discouraged people from talking.”

A number of promising leads cropped up in the weeks following the blaze and yet the police didn’t get much assistance from domestic news outlets.

A contributor to a 2011 anthology titled “Kabukicho Underworld” pointed to the existence of video footage that showed a person running away from the building at 12:55 a.m., shortly before the fire started.

The footage was found on a surveillance camera at a pachinko gift exchange by an investigative journalist. A television station announced the finding but never aired the footage. You have to wonder if it could have made a difference.

Turning back to the fire at Kyoto Animation, a suspect has already been apprehended, so it seems likely someone will be convicted for the attack.

Meanwhile, the families of the 44 people who died in Kabukicho in 2001 may never see justice. Whether or not this is ultimately accomplished shouldn’t be determined by the nature of the place where they died.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

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