World

Suspect in Kyoto fire had criminal record and trouble with neighbors

TOKYO — Moments after a lighter was put to a pool of gas at a renowned animé studio in Kyoto, Japan, igniting an explosive fire that killed 34 people, Shinji Aoba tried to run away from the scene.

Aoba, who has been named a suspect in the alleged arson, did not get far, as he was badly burned himself. Chased down by studio workers, he fell to the ground, and several witnesses captured the scene on their cellphones. The police swarmed around him as he lay on his back on the street, his knees bent.

“I did it because they stole my novel,” he said, according to police officials cited by NHK, the public broadcaster. According to a bystander quoted by NHK, Aoba warned police officers not to touch him when they asked if he could stand.

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“They plagiarized my work,” he said. “Call the president. I have something to tell him.”

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The picture emerging of Aoba was of an unstable 41-year-old with a troubled past. Police sources cited by NHK said he had served prison time for robbery and was being treated for an unspecified mental illness. Aoba had not been officially arrested because police officials said his medical needs were too critical.

On Saturday, Aoba was transferred from a hospital in Kyoto to a university-based center in Osaka that has a specialized burn unit. Video footage on NHK showed him on a stretcher, both legs swathed in white bandages, before hospital workers covered him with a pale blue sheet as they loaded him onto a helicopter.

The nation was shocked by the blaze at the studio, Kyoto Animation, which appeared to be the worst mass killing in Japan in decades. The victims have not yet been identified publicly; according to the Kyoto Police, some of the bodies were burned so badly that they were difficult to identify.

With the police and the public searching for explanations of the devastating crime, experts said they feared the tragedy could lead to the stigmatization of people with mental illness, particularly as it comes less than two months after a man who lived as an extreme recluse stabbed 17 schoolgirls and two adults at a bus stop in a Tokyo suburb.

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There was no indication that Aoba also suffered from the same psychiatric condition — known in Japan as hikikomori — but reports that he had been treated for mental illness concerned many experts.

“I am very worried that just after this kind of incident many people will fear people with psychiatric illness,” said Dr. Takahiro A. Kato, a psychiatrist at Kyushu University. “We should remember that the majority of mentally ill people have no such risk” of committing violence.

According to sources involved in the police investigation that were cited in several news outlets, Aoba was arrested in 2012 on a charge of robbing a convenience store in Ibaraki, northeast of Tokyo.

A report in the newsmagazine Weekly Bunshun said Aoba had turned himself in to the police, naming a member of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult that carried out a 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 13 people, and saying he did not think he would be able to evade law enforcement.

Aoba was convicted of robbery and possession of a weapon, as he had been carrying a knife, and served more than three years in prison. After his release in 2016, he spent some time in a subsidized dormitory for former prisoners, where he could live rent free and eat meals.

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According to reports from Bunshun and other Japanese outlets, Aoba eventually moved to his own apartment on a quiet street in Saitama, a suburban area north of Tokyo, although police sources said it was not clear whether he currently held a job.

‘They plagiarized my work. Call the president. I have something to tell him.’

Takayuki Harada, a professor of psychology at Tsukuba University, said that a previous criminal record and joblessness were higher risk factors for future criminal activity than a psychiatric condition.

A neighbor in Aoba’s building told the Jiji Press that Aoba had banged on his door this month and rattled the doorknob. When the neighbor answered the door, he told Jiji, Aoba grabbed him by his chest and hair and shouted: “I will kill you. I have nothing to lose.” According to Bunshun, the neighbor reported the confrontation to police.

Hideaki Hatta, who founded Kyoto Animation with his wife, Yoko Hatta, in 1981, told the Mainichi Shimbun that the company had received a number of death threats in the past two years, although he said Aoba’s name did not appear in any of the threatening e-mails.

Hideaki Hatta said he had no idea what Aoba was talking about when he claimed that Kyoto Animation “stole my novel.” Hatta said Aoba had never submitted a manuscript to the company’s novel contest.