A man accused of an arson attack at an animation studio in Japan has pleaded guilty to the murder of 36 people.
Shinji Aoba, 45, is charged with murder, attempted murder and arson after he stormed into Kyoto Animation’s No. 1 studio on July 18 2019, and set it on fire.
The blaze killed 36 people and left more than 30 others badly burned or injured.
Aoba appeared before the Kyoto District Court for his trial in a wheelchair and wearing a surgical mask, Japanese media reported.
Prosecutors said he carried out the crime in “revenge”, thinking Kyoto Animation had stolen one of his novels which he had submitted for a company contest, but defence lawyers have said he cannot be held criminally responsible..
In a statement, Aoba said the attack was all he could think about at that time but that he never thought so many people would die. He now thinks he went too far, he said, according to the reports.
Aoba nearly died in the attack, suffering severe burns on 90% of his body. He was unconscious for weeks and treated for 10 months at a hospital specialising in burns, where he underwent several skin transplant operations that saved him, police said.
He was last publicly seen on a stretcher at the time of his arrest in May 2020.
Prosecutors waited another six months for the results of a psychiatric evaluation before pressing formal charges. They said he was mentally fit to stand trial while Aoba’s defence lawyers argued he is mentally unfit to be held criminally responsible.
About 70 people were working inside the studio in southern Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, at the time of the attack.
One of the survivors, an animator, has said he saw a black mushroom cloud rising from downstairs, then scorching heat came and he jumped from a window of the three-storey building gasping for air.
Experts say they believe many died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The company, founded in 1981 and better known as KyoAni, made a mega-hit anime series about high-school girls and carried out training.
The attack shocked Japan and drew an outpouring of grief from anime fans worldwide.
On Tuesday, 500 people lined up outside of the court to vie for 35 public seats available in the courtroom for the first hearing. There will be 30 more trial sessions this year before a verdict, which is expected in January.
Japanese media have described Aoba as being thought of as a troublemaker who repeatedly changed contract jobs and apartments.
Neighbours said he often quarrelled with other residents in various apartment buildings he lived in near Tokyo. He served prison time for theft at a convenience store in 2012.
The fire was Japan’s deadliest since 2001, when a blaze in Tokyo’s congested Kabukicho entertainment district killed 44 people. It was the country’s worst known case of arson in modern times.
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