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Police took 'unprecedented' care with families to release Kyoto Animation victim names

People are seen praying for the victims at the arson-hit Kyoto Animation Co. 1st Studio building in Kyoto's Fushimi Ward on Aug. 2, 2019. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

KYOTO -- Kyoto Prefectural Police took the unusual step of obtaining consent from the families of 10 of the 35 victims in the deadly arson attack on a Kyoto Animation Co. studio building before publicly releasing their names on Aug. 2.

While the police force plans to release the remaining victims' names, the company is demanding that their identities be withheld, making it uncertain whether the 25 others will be publicly named.

"We carefully examined the matter while listening to opinions from the families of the victims and the company, which is opposed to disclosing the victims' names," a senior official with Kyoto Prefectural Police said.

In the past, there have been cases in which police kept the names of victims of crimes and accidents anonymous, as they could not obtain consent from their bereaved relatives.

During the aftermath of the July 18 arson attack on Kyoto Animation's 1st Studio building in Kyoto's Fushimi Ward, which left 35 people dead and 33 others injured, investigators had a hard time identifying victims due to the severity of the damage to their bodies.

With consideration for the gravity of the crime, prefectural police had planned to release the names of everyone who perished in the attack, and were going to withhold the information until all the victims were identified. The decision came about because identification of the bodies was expected to take a considerable amount of time.

Kyoto Prefectural Police chose to identify the bodies through DNA tests, and at one point were inclined to release the names of the victims in stages. "We can't afford to withhold their identities forever," said a senior official at the prefectural police.

However, Kyoto Animation opposed the victims' names being announced by police one after another and reported by news organizations.

On July 22, the company lodged a written request with prefectural police demanding it refrain from publicizing the victims' names on the grounds of protecting their privacy and that of their family members.

The firm emphasized that releasing the victims' real names would make it easy for people to disseminate both personal and false information online, potentially hurting bereaved families already in emotional pain.

In response, prefectural police began negotiating with the company to try to obtain understanding toward publicly identifying the victims. The company then demanded that if the names of victims were to be announced, they should be identified collectively, and that the announcement should come after funeral services were over.

In compliance, prefectural police agreed to release their names after funerals, and prepared to make the first announcement on July 29.

However, shortly before the planned release, the National Police Agency stepped in, ordering Kyoto Prefectural Police to postpone the announcement, saying, "Internal review of the matter is necessary," according to a source close to the prefectural police.

This raised a need for prefectural police to lay the groundwork for an announcement with former National Public Safety Commission chiefs, thereby pushing it back.

As the prefectural police had already notified the bereaved families of the July 29 announcement plan, police officials were forced to scramble to contact them about the cancellation.

Prior to the Aug. 2 announcement, prefectural police took the "unprecedented steps" of interviewing all bereaved families over whether they would allow the names of their loved ones to be publicized and if they would respond to media interviews, according to a senior prefectural police official.

The arson attack suspect, Shinji Aoba, 41, has already been taken into custody, and police have also obtained an arrest warrant for him on suspicion of murder and other charges. Therefore, the prefectural police investigative task force has placed more weight on providing support to victims and their families.

Of the approximately 100 officers on the task force, 70 to 80 were entrusted with responding to the bereaved families. "It is an unprecedented arrangement for an investigative task force," said a senior investigator.

In addition, a 100-strong support group was set up separately at the prefectural police headquarters, bringing the total number of officers providing care to the victims and their kin to 170 to 180.

"We have to weigh both opinions -- calls to properly announce the identities of the victims, and calls to give consideration to the sentiment of the bereaved families," a senior prefectural police official confided.

"The method taken this time to announce the names is not necessarily the right answer. We had no choice but to listen to the opinions of the victims' relatives one by one," the official added.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Odanaka, Satoshi Fukutomi and Kanae Soejima, Kyoto Bureau)

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