• Kyodo

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Two officials working for a bus operating company pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges stemming from a crash in 2016, which killed 15 people in a mountain resort town, as they faced court in the first hearing of their trial.

Misaku Takahashi, 60, president of the operator ESP, and Tsuyoshi Arai, 53, an operations manager at the time of the crash, denied they were guilty of professional negligence resulting in death or injury.

In the early hours of Jan. 15, 2016, an ESP bus chartered for a ski trip, driven by 65-year-old Hiroshi Tsuchiya, careened off a road in the town of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, after hitting a guardrail at a speed of 96 kilometers per hour. Tsuchiya was one of 15 people aboard who died, and 26 others were injured.

In their opening statement at the Nagano District Court, prosecutors said ESP was facing a lack of manpower amid its efforts to expand the business and it made drivers drive large buses without undergoing the necessary training.

"Arai did not confirm the specific abilities of the deceased driver, despite knowing that he was worried about driving a big bus after a blank period of four-and-a half years," a prosecutor said.

The defense counsel pointed out that the driver did not apply the brake just before the accident occurred, arguing it was difficult to predict that any driver would fail to make such a basic move.

The focal point of the trial was whether Takahashi and Arai were responsible for the accident although they were not present at the time.

"I had left it on Arai, and thought he was doing everything that was required," Takahashi told the court during the hearing.

Arai, meanwhile, said, "I did not think that the driver would cause such an accident, as he had a driving license."

He also bowed three times as he turned to the bereaved families sitting beside prosecutors and seats for the public, saying, "I am really sorry."

According to the indictment, Takahashi did not instruct Arai to have the driver trained sufficiently despite being informed that Tsuchiya was inexperienced in driving large buses like the one involved in the crash.

Arai's charges relate to his failure to ensure Tsuchiya had received training and had the requisite experience to drive the large bus, after being informed that he was not confident in doing so.

The death toll included 13 university students and a substitute driver.

Many people had lined up in the morning to receive tickets to attend the hearing in the high-profile case.

"It is a shock that many young lives were taken. I wonder about the management of the company that made an inexperienced driver drive the bus," said a 68-year-old man.

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