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News Navigator: Why is the deadly Mitaka train derailment incident back in the news?

In this July 15, 1949 file photo, a runaway train is seen after plowing into several buildings including a home in Mitaka, a suburb in western Tokyo. (Mainichi)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the deadly Mitaka train derailment incident, which has been in the news lately because of the Tokyo High Court's rejection of a second request for a retrial.

Question: So what exactly is the so-called "Mitaka Incident," and what happened to the retrial request?

Answer: On the night of July 15, 1949 at the then Japanese National Railways' Mitaka Station in western Tokyo, an unmanned runaway train derailed, killing six people. Keisuke Takeuchi, who was found guilty of causing the incident and put on death row, died in detention in 1967 while appealing for a retrial. His son filed a second retrial request in 2011, which was rejected by the Tokyo High Court on July 31 of this year.

Q: Is causing an unmanned train to run out of control and derail something that is possible for one person to do alone?

A: A total of 10 people, including Takeuchi and Japanese Communist Party members were indicted. But in court, it was determined that Takeuchi acted alone to protest being fired from his job at the state-run railway. Takeuchi initially made a "confession," but his testimony kept changing and he ultimately declared that he was innocent. Seeing as seven of the 15 Supreme Court justices opposed the court's final decision, it's clear that the bench was torn, too. This is partly why the incident is said to be unresolved.

Q: So it's still a mystery, then.

A: In the summer of 1949, around the time of the Mitaka Incident -- when Japan was still beset by post-World War II chaos -- there were two additional mysterious cases. One is called the Shimoyama Incident, in which Sadanori Shimoyama, the then president of Japanese National Railways, was found run over by a train. This is said to have been a suicide, but there are many who believe it was murder. The other case is called the Matsukawa Incident, in which a train derailed and overturned, killing three crew members. Twenty people, including members of the Japanese Communist Party, were indicted, but they were ultimately found not guilty. In the three national railway incidents that took place around the same time, Takeuchi is the only one who was found guilty.

Q: In what context did these incidents occur?

A: Based on the policies of the Allied Powers, which occupied Japan at the time, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida had put forth a plan for major civil service layoffs. Some 100,000 employees of Japanese National Railways were subject to the staff reductions, to which the labor union objected. The Cold War was setting in around the world, and domestically speaking, the polarization of ideologies had some suspect that the incident was a setup by the Allied Powers to diminish the strength of the leftists.

(Answers by Kenji Tatsumi, City News Department)

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