Japan: A man has been sentenced to death over a fire in Kyoto that killed 36 people

  • Written by Francis Mao and Shaima Khalil
  • In Singapore and Tokyo

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Shinji Aoba started a fire in 2019 that killed 36 people at a Kyoto animation studio.

A Japanese man has been sentenced to death for an arson attack at an animation studio in Kyoto in 2019, which killed 36 people and injured dozens.

This accident, one of the deadliest in Japan in recent decades, killed most of the young artists and shocked the animation world.

Shinji Aoba, 45, pleaded guilty to the attack but his lawyers asked for a lighter sentence on the grounds of “mental incompetence.”

But the judges rejected this, ruling that the Oba knew what he was doing.

“I have decided that the defendant was not insane or mentally weak at the time of the crime,” Chief Magistrate Masuda said Thursday in Kyoto District Court.

“The death of 36 people is very serious and tragic. The fear and pain felt by the deceased victims is indescribable,” Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) quoted him as saying.

Several animators – young artists – died after becoming trapped on the upper floors of the studio as the fire spread.

The attack was one of the deadliest in recent decades and sparked national mourning in Japan. The public and media in the country followed the case closely.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty for Ohba, saying he had a motive to attack the studio after he believed his works had been stolen. He said that Kyoto Animation Company – known as KyoAni – had plagiarized a novel in which he entered the competition.

In July 2019, he broke into the studio during a workday, sprayed gasoline on the ground floor and set it on fire while repeatedly shouting “drop dead.”

He later said during his guilty plea in September 2023 that he did not think many people would die.

“I felt like I had no other choice but to do what I did,” he said at the time.

“I feel very sorry and that feeling includes guilt.”

Aoba himself suffered burns to more than 90% of his body in the fire, and was not arrested until after he had recovered from the operations.

Image source, Getty Images

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Oba told the court last year that he did not believe that many people would be killed

“The delusion that KyoAni Studio had stolen his work influenced his motives,” prosecutors told the court.

But they said he was not under the control of such delusions and had full capacity and understanding of his actions.

On Thursday, the judge read a lengthy explanation of the victims' testimonies before announcing the ruling. More than half of the animation studio's 70-person workforce were killed in the event, and another 32 were injured.

Judge Masouda said: “Some of them saw their colleagues caught on fire, and some of them suffer from psychological effects, and are tormented by feelings of guilt and remorse.”

Families of the victims were seen in the courtroom, many of them visibly emotional as the judge read out the details of Aoba's crime, NHK reported.

Oba kept his head bowed as the judge read the death penalty sentence, the outlet reported.

Japan reserves the death penalty for its most serious crimes, such as multiple murders. Convicts often remain on death row for years, or even decades. The death penalty is carried out by hanging.

Kyoto's KyoAni studio is a beloved institution, known for producing films and graphic novels that are highly regarded by fans and critics – including K-On! And Haruhi Suzumiya's sadness.

Video explanation,

Watch: A fire broke out at the animation studio's headquarters in July 2019

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