Man admits carrying out fatal 2019 Kyoto Animation arson attack

A man admitted on Tuesday to carrying out a 2019 arson attack that killed 36 people at a famous Japanese anime studio in Kyoto, but his defense team called for his acquittal on the grounds that he was not mentally competent at the time.

Shinji Aoba, 45, from Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, faces murder and four other charges over the blaze at the Kyoto Animation Co. studio’s premises, according to the indictment. Another 32 people were injured in one of Japan’s worst-ever murder cases in terms of the number of victims, and prosecutors are likely to seek the death penalty.

“I felt I had no other option but to do what I did,” said Aoba at the Kyoto District Court, but added that he “did not anticipate that so many people would die.”

Wearing a face mask and seated in a wheelchair, Aoba, with close-cropped hair, said, “I now think that what I did was excessive.”

The defense team said Aoba was suffering from delusions and believed he was fighting back against a “dark figure,” arguing that even if he is convicted, he should be given a reduced sentence because of what they said was his state of diminished capacity.

His lawyers also said the studio’s structure may have had led to the large number of fatalities.

The prosecutors said Aoba wrongly believed that Kyoto Animation had plagiarized a novel he had entered into a contest run by the firm and that he was under surveillance by the authorities. But they said he was not controlled by such delusions and can be held fully responsible for the attack on the studio in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward on July 18, 2019.

About 500 people, including Kyoto Animation fans, lined up from 7:00 a.m., vying to get just 35 courtroom seats made available to the general public.

After Tuesday’s first hearing of the lay judge trial, 23 more sessions are expected to follow before the ruling is handed down on Jan. 25, 2024.

When the police detained him near the studio shortly after the attack, Aoba admitted to setting the studio on fire, saying the company had “stolen a novel” from him.

The studio, often referred to as “KyoAni,” is known internationally for producing a number of popular animation works, including “K-On!” and “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.”

Before the attack, Kyoto Animation held public contests for draft novels with the promise that the winners would get their stories turned into animated shows. However, the company says none of its shows were based on Aoba’s submitted works.

Following his arrest, Aoba told investigators he had thought he could kill many people by using gasoline but also said he had thought there were only about two victims.

Aoba himself sustained life-threatening burns and underwent intense treatment before he was arrested in May 2020. He made his first court appearance in June 2020 for a pre-trial detention hearing, lying on a stretcher.

The prosecutors indicted him in December 2020, claiming after conducting a psychiatric evaluation that he can be held criminally responsible for his actions, despite his documented history of mental illness.