Effects of arson spree go beyond six burned houses in Tokyo

January 18, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Five members of a family died and six houses were quickly destroyed during an arson spree in Tokyo this weekend that was unusual, perhaps unprecedented, in modern Japan.

Arson has long been considered among the worst, if not the worst, offense in a country where the traditional wood frame house is hopeless ly vulnerable to fire. Such crimes are extremely rare, and even inadvertent fires can mar a family's reputation for generations.

Police said they had no record of a crime equal to last weekend's arson in which six homes intentionally were set ablaze. The most recent similar cases occurred in 1990 and 1989 in two other large Japanese cities, Kobe and Fukuoka, each involving a single home fire that cost many lives.

The six homes struck over the weekend were in the same vicinity and were ignited at about the same time early Sunday morning. A witness, Chiemi Masuda, said it took only three to four minutes to transform the homes to embers, and then another half-hour for the remaining flames to smolder to a halt. Firefighters were overwhelmed.

A woman living in one of the homes, Etsumi Fujita, 29, was able to escape by jumping from one roof to the next, while her father, Terumi, 58, leaped from a second floor window and was badly injured.

His wife, Kino, 53 initially escaped the blaze but returned to the home in a failed effort to rescue her mother-in-law, Ine, 76. Both perished, along with two other daughters, ages 26 and 23, and a son, 22, who lived elsewhere but had stopped by for an overnight visit. Destroyed in the fire was a small pub that the family maintained in the first floor of their home.

Yesterday, 14 people who were left without homes were being housed in the small common room of a housing project. The ward office provided blankets, sheets, soap and some small presents, and numerous friends provided a stream of visitors. Outside, a crowd gathered. The smell of charred wood was evident blocks away, and brick and concrete buildings nearby were scorched.

The neighborhood, Shimura, in Itabashi ward, is among the least affluent in Tokyo, a home to small shop owners, clerks and factory workers. But if there is no evidence of opulence, neither is there any sign of poverty.

Away from the ruins of the homes, the streets are clean and buildings well maintained. Residential homes are interspersed with stores and small restaurants, and neighbors are well known to one another. Small details of each family are widely known, such as the fact that the two daughters who died were each engaged to be married.

Miya Shibasaki lives across the street from the burned homes, above her business, a small convenience store. During the night of the blaze she was awakened by the screams of the dying. She spoke of how the mother-in-law would stop by her small store to purchase caramels as a gift for the cleaner next door because she felt a gift should be given along with the laundry. The cleaner spoke with regret about how he had just returned the family's clothing, inadvertently costing the survivors more of their possessions.

"It's been peaceful around here," said Ms. Shibasaki, who has lived in Shimura for 40 years. "Now the police are around here, but when they leave, it may happen again."

A newspaper account said a suspect made a getaway down a shortcut known only to locals.

That would undercut a common Japanese contention that foreigners are the source of serious crimes, but of course it raises another equally troubling possibility -- that such problems have taken root at home.

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