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Police identify suspect in arson fire that killed 24 in Japan

TOKYO — Surveillance footage showed the man entering a psychiatric clinic in a busy office building in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city, and setting two large paper bags on the floor of the waiting area.

Police identify suspect in arson fire that killed 24 in Japan

Firetrucks are seen in front of an office building, where a fire broke out in Osaka on December 17, 2021.

TOKYO — Surveillance footage showed the man entering a psychiatric clinic in a busy office building in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city, and setting two large paper bags on the floor of the waiting area.

Within an instant, a fire ignited, ripping through the 270-square-foot clinic on Friday (Dec 17) morning. By the time firefighters brought it under control, less than 30 minutes later, 28 people had been taken to a hospital. By the afternoon, 24 were confirmed to be dead.

On Sunday, police put a name to the man, who they said was being investigated on suspicion of arson and murder, according to NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster. The suspect, Morio Tanimoto, 61, is in critical condition and has not been arrested, NHK said. Two other survivors of the fire were also in critical condition Sunday.

The fire, in a crowded district just steps from Osaka’s largest train station, rattled a country well known for its sense of security. It came just six weeks after another violent attack, in which police said a man dressed as the Joker wounded 17 people with a knife on a Tokyo train and tried to set a fire onboard.

Last month, another man was arrested and charged with arson after a fire was set on a bullet train in Kyushu, in southern Japan.

According to police in Osaka, street surveillance cameras captured footage of Tanimoto on a bicycle as he left his home less than 3 miles from the clinic, carrying two paper bags.

On Saturday, as rumours of the suspect’s identity emerged, journalists flocked to Nishiyodogawa, the neighbourhood of nondescript beige and cream houses where Tanimoto lived.

Mr Takehiro Kyoraku, an official in the investigation division of the Osaka prefectural police, said a small fire had occurred on the morning of the lethal fire at a home in Nishiyodogawa, though he would not confirm that it was Tanimoto’s residence. In the home, police found a document indicating a relationship with the psychiatric clinic.

The fire raised questions about structural safety. The clinic, which specialized in internal medicine and psychiatry, was housed on the fourth floor of a narrow, eight-story building erected in 1970, which had just one stairwell. Fire safety experts say buildings should have at least two exits.

Over the weekend, according to NHK, the fire department in Osaka started urgent on-site inspections of buildings with only one set of stairs, identifying close to 5,500 such structures in the city of nearly 2.7 million. Fire officials were checking to make sure those exits were not blocked.

Two years ago, another arson fire at an anime studio in Kyoto, not far from Osaka, killed 33 people and injured dozens in one of Japan’s worst mass killings in decades. In that case, fire experts identified numerous problems with the building, which also had just one main stairwell and lacked fireproofing on interior fixtures.

Such incidents disrupt a fundamental sense of security in Japan, where crime is relatively scarce, and the murder rate is among the lowest in the world.

“In Japan there is a myth of safety,” said Mr Yasuyuki Deguchi, a criminal psychologist at Tokyo Mirai University. “Stopping these crimes is very, very difficult,” he added. “Most of these crimes occur without any warning. You cannot even guess that they are thinking about arson.”

Experts in arson say it is a public health issue, with many perpetrators showing signs of mental illness. Dr Theresa A. Gannon, a professor of forensic psychology at the University of Kent in England, said that arsonists were often anti-social or had trouble forming intimate relationships, and that they used fire-setting as a coping mechanism or to get attention.

Dr Gannon and a team at the University of Kent have developed a training program for mental health professionals to treat people who have a record of setting fires. She said that the team had trained professionals in the United States, Australia, Canada and Singapore and that a manual was available in Japanese.

Last year in Japan, there were nearly 2,500 incidents of arson, which killed 236 people, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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