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Social awareness, privacy issues in spotlight as Kyoto Animation arson victims named

Messages and illustrations for the victims of the Kyoto Animation fire attack are seen in an area for people to leave offerings for the dead, in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, on Aug. 18, 2019. (Mainichi/Ai Kawahira)

Kyoto Prefectural Police have announced the names of the remaining 25 people who died in an arson attack on a Kyoto Animation Co. studio on July 18, meaning all 35 victims of the deadly fire have now been identified.

It is common for the names of victims in such cases to be released, though there have recently been cases in which bereaved families have suffered more pain from the names being published online. While some families didn't want the victims to be named, Kyoto Prefectural Police explained to them that they intended to do so. The Mainichi Shimbun examined the issue of identification and anonymity from the perspective of past cases and trends overseas.

In 2005, the derailment of a speeding train on the JR Fukuchiyama Line in the western Japan prefecture of Hyogo claimed the lives of 106 passengers and the driver. Tsuneo Okumura, 72, a resident of the Hyogo Prefecture city of Sanda who lost his 21-year-old daughter Yoko to the accident, decided to release her name from the outset, and supplied a photo of her to news organizations.

"I wanted people to realize the weight of the wrongdoing in the accident that claimed the life of my daughter, who was at the height of her youth," he said.

At the time, however, there were people who mocked images of his daughter and spoke unkindly about her death. Okumura says he understands how some families of victims of the Kyoto Animation arson attack did not want the victims' names to be disclosed. "The internet population has increased compared to 14 years ago, and there are times when unreliable information is circulated," he said.

Nevertheless, through news reports mentioning his daughter's name, Okumura came to know her friends, and was able to interact with those who expressed sympathy over her death. He is confident that bereaved families were able to contribute to the development of a society placing importance on safety by continuing to express their opinions in the wake of the accident.

In another incident in 2016, a knife-wielding attacker entered a care home for disabled people in the city of Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, and fatally stabbed 19 people and injured 26 others. Takashi Ono, 75, released the name and an image of his son Kazuya, 46, who was among those injured and initially remained unconscious. This was in spite of the fact that police initially did not disclose any of the names of the victims. Most of the other bereaved families remained quiet.

"It seemed strange to me when I heard that the reason for not naming the victims was 'because they had heavy intellectual disabilities,'" Ono recalls. "I never once hid Kazuya's disability." He added that nothing would come out of concealing the names of the victims, who had all earnestly lived their lives. Taking Ono's feelings into consideration, Kanagawa Prefectural Police later officially announced Kazuya's name.

It appears that changes in the internet environment have resulted in more people wanting to remain anonymous. But some experts underscore the significance of releasing not only the names of victims but suspects as well.

"The real names of the victims, and of the suspects, comprise important information that should be shared by society in recording the full picture of the incident and shedding light on the cause," says Takaaki Hattori, a professor emeritus at Rikkyo University specializing in media law. He noted that 53 of the 69 people who were killed or injured in the Kyoto Animation arson attack were in their 20s or 30s, and said that reflecting on each of their lives would bring the outrageousness of the crime into perspective.

Under the Basic Plan for Crime Victims approved by the Cabinet in 2005, the decision on whether to release the names of crime victims is left up to police. But Hattori warns, "If arbitrary police decisions go unchallenged, then it could become impossible to confirm false arrests."

At the same time, Jun Oguro, a professor at Doshisha University, points out that media organizations need to accept that some victims and their families don't want their names to be disclosed.

"They (the media) should consider whether people simply don't want to be interviewed by a crowd of news organizations in the midst of their sadness, or whether they are against their names being released altogether. In the former case, the media can take such action as refraining from interviewing people at their homes. They should also explain how they are covering the news."

Ryohei Hayashi, 65, a former official of the National Association of Crime Victims and Surviving Families, which was disbanded in June 2018, says that the wishes of victims should be given top priority.

"Some people might be all right with giving interviews, but there are others who just want to be left in peace. Surely it's OK to wait until the victim decides it's all right to release the information," Hayashi says.

A lawyer representing Kyoto Animation Co. on Aug. 27 said it was "extremely regrettable" that Kyoto Prefectural Police had released the names of victims of the arson attack, irrespective of the wishes of some of the bereaved families and repeated requests from the company. Stating that a letter of protest had been sent to Kyoto Prefectural Police, the lawyer called for people to respect the privacy and wishes of the deceased and their families.

Hidemichi Morosawa, former president of Tokiwa University, who is versed in victimology, notes that it is common in Europe and North America for a lawyer or a group supporting victims to serve as a spokesperson to speak up and protect the rights of victims while acting as a liaison with the media. The spokesperson negotiates with media organizations gathering news over whether or not to allow them to release names and the timing of interviews, among other issues. Kyoto Prefectural Police took over this role following the Kyoto Animation arson attack, but Morosawa comments, "It's strange for police to serve as the liaison with the media when they have a sole grip on information and are in a position to use their authority. This stops the media from being able to check police authority."

(Japanese original by Yuka Obuno, Hanshin Bureau, Ai Kunimoto, Yokohama Bureau, Haruka Ito, Osaka City News Department, Ken Aoshima, Tama General Bureau, Kanae Soejima, Kyoto Bureau, and Koji Yamane, Tokyo City News Department)

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