33 dead in arson attack on Kyoto animation studio

Firefighters battling the blaze yesterday at the three-storey Kyoto Animation building in western Japan. A man who poured what appeared to be petrol around the building has been held. PHOTO: REUTERS
Firefighters battling the blaze yesterday at the three-storey Kyoto Animation building in western Japan. A man who poured what appeared to be petrol around the building has been held. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO • A man shouted "die" as he doused an animation studio with fuel and set it ablaze in Japan yesterday, public broadcaster NHK reported, killing at least 33 people in the nation's worst mass murder in nearly two decades.

On Twitter, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the attack in the city of Kyoto - the latest grisly killing in a country widely known for its low crime rates - too appalling for words, and offered his condolences.

"Today, we had many casualties in a fatal arson attack that happened in Kyoto," he wrote. "It is so horrifying that I am at a loss for words. I would like to express my deepest condolences to the victims. I offer my thoughts to those who have been wounded and pray for their early recovery, by even one day."

Police detained a 41-year-old man who had shouted "die" as he poured what appeared to be petrol around the three-storey Kyoto Animation building shortly after 10am local time (9am Singapore time), NHK reported.

About 70 people were inside the offices of Kyoto Animation when the blaze started, police said.

Thirty-three people were confirmed dead, an official for the Kyoto City Fire Department said.

Fire engulfed the building as white and black smoke billowed from its charred windows.

  • Other shocking crimes in the past

    Yesterday's suspected arson at Kyoto Animation studio is one of Japan's deadliest non-terror incidents in peacetime. Despite having one of the lowest crime rates in the world, the country has witnessed some shocking crimes:

    Kawasaki stabbing

    In May this year, a man stabbed 16 people, including 13 schoolchildren, at a bus stop in the city of Kawasaki, a suburb south-west of Tokyo. One of the schoolchildren and an older man were killed in the attack. The attacker later stabbed himself in the neck and died of injuries.

    Zama suicide pact killings

    In 2017, police found nine human heads and 240 bones in 27-year-old Takahiro Shiraishi's 13.5 sq m apartment in Zama city, an hour's drive from central Tokyo.

    Shiraishi had lured his despondent victims via Twitter, claiming to be a suicide expert who could help them end their lives.

    Eight of the nine victims were women, mainly in their late teens to early 20s, while the ninth was the boyfriend of a victim. Shiraishi said his motives were sex and money.

    Sagamihara rampage

    In 2016, Satoshi Uematsu, then 26, went on a stabbing rampage at a home for the disabled in Sagamihara, north of Tokyo.

    Uematsu, who had worked at the care facility but was sacked for his radical thoughts, said he wanted to "cleanse society of imperfection", and had even written to the Cabinet Office about his Hitler-inspired ideologies.

    The attack left 19 dead and 26 others injured.

    Akihabara stabbings

    In 2008, Tomohiro Kato, then 25, killed seven people and injured 10 others in Akihabara, Tokyo's popular electronic goods area, when he rammed his truck into a crowd, before alighting and going on a stabbing spree.

    Kato, who was mired in poverty and had been sacked from his temporary job, said he was "lower than trash because at least the trash gets recycled".

    Osaka school massacre

    In 2001, Mamoru Takuma, then 37, entered Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka and began stabbing pupils and teachers at random with a kitchen knife.

    Eight pupils died, while a further 13 children and two teachers were severely wounded.

    Takuma, a former janitor at another school, was executed in 2004. The case prompted schools to beef up their security measures.

People in neighbouring households said they heard what sounded like a series of loud explosions and saw thick black smoke billowing from the studio.

Mr Shiro Misaki, a 47-year-old owner of a neighbourhood bar five minutes from the studio, said he was driving nearby when he saw the thick smoke.

"Policemen were stopping traffic, and it was really hazy with smoke," he said. "Even after I got back to my restaurant, I could smell the smoke."

More than 30 fire engines were deployed to the scene.

Many of the victims were found in the studio, some on the third floor and others on a staircase leading up to the roof, a fire offi-cial said.

Another 36 were injured, 10 of them seriously, the official said.

The suspected arsonist was injured and being treated in hos-pital, so police could not question him, NHK said.

Citing the Kyoto police, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the suspect had tried to escape, but collapsed on the street outside and was captured by members of the studio's staff.

A number of knives and knife-like objects were found at the scene, although investigators have yet to determine if these belong to the suspect.

The studio produces popular series such as the Sound! Euphonium. Its Free! Road To The World - The Dream movie is due for release this month.

"I am heartbroken," Mr Hideaki Hatta, the studio's chief executive, told reporters.

"It is unbearable that the people who helped carry Japan's animation industry were hurt and lost their lives in this way."

Kyoto Animation was founded by Mr Hatta and his wife Yoko in 1981, and most of the studio's production takes place in the building that was the site of yesterday's fire.

There was an outpouring of support for the studio on Japanese-language social media, with some users posting pictures of animation.

Many posted with the hashtag "#PrayForKyoani" - using an abbreviation for Kyoto Animation.

The studio has an outsize impact on Japan's noted animation in-dustry that outstrips the list of the works it has produced, said Tokyo-based film commentator Yuichi Maeda.

"It is one of the best and largest animation firms in Japan and, with that loss of life, many of the best hands at animation in the nation are likely to be dead," Mr Maeda said, his voice shaking. "It is too painful to contemplate."

"It has a huge presence in animation here. To have this many people die at once will be a huge blow to the Japanese animation industry," he added.

It was Japan's worst mass killing since a suspected arson attack on a Tokyo building in 2001.

In September 2001, a fire at a building in the Kabukicho entertainment district in central Tokyo killed 44. Arson was suspected, but nobody was ever charged,

Violent crime is relatively rare in Japan.

Less than two months ago, a knife-wielding man slashed at a group of schoolgirls at a bus stop in Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo, killing one girl and the father of another, and injuring more than a dozen children.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2019, with the headline 33 dead in arson attack on Kyoto animation studio. Subscribe