TOKYO (AP) — The suspect in a 2019 arson attack at an animation studio in Japan went on trial Tuesday, pleading guilty to the murder of 36 people. The trial for the deadliest crime in decades in the country had been long delayed to give the defendant time to recover from serious burns sustained in the attack.
Shinji Aoba, 45, is charged with multiple counts of 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 in a wheelchair and wearing a surgical mask, Japanese media reported. Prosecutors said he carried out the crime in “revenge,” thinking the Kyoto Animation had stolen one of his novels, which he had submitted for a company contest, reports said.
In his 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, including on the face, torso and limbs. He was unconscious for weeks and treated for 10 months at a hospital specializing 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, after the 10-months hospitalization. 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 defense 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-story 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 trained aspirants to the craft.
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, expected in January.
Japanese media have described Aoba as being thought of as a trouble-maker who repeatedly changed contract jobs and apartments. Neighbors said he often quarreled 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.