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Tokyo man shunned over virus fears dies alone in northeast Japan fire

The building, left, where Toshiaki Matsuo was found dead on the second floor, is seen next to the shop and residence, center, where the fire started, in this partially modified image taken in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, on April 15, 2020. (Mainichi/Yutaka Yamada)

MORIOKA -- On the morning of April 11, a fire broke out on a small shopping street in the city of Hanamaki, in the northeastern prefecture of Iwate. A man was found dead in a residence next to the one where the blaze started.

Toshiaki Matsuo was 72. Enchanted for some years by Iwate's cultural attractions and natural beauty, he had finally moved to Hanamaki from Tokyo three days before the fire that took his life. He had been set to take up residence in another home where he could have seen out the rest of his life peacefully.

As of April 17, Iwate is the only prefecture in Japan yet to confirm a single case of the novel coronavirus. But warnings in the area concerning the spread of the infectious disease may have spurred Matsuo's new neighbors to ask him initially not to come to the apartment where he was set to live, and for the city government to also request he wait before officially submitting his resident registration.

Seemingly hounded by the community, Matsuo then lost his life to the fire that ripped through the temporary accommodations he had just moved into.

A resident of Tokyo's Ota Ward, Matsuo began visiting Hanamaki some 30 years ago. According to a 62-year-old man who owns a restaurant in the city and was close with Matsuo, he told him his hobby was visiting memorial and other museums across Japan.

Among his travel destinations, he particularly liked Hanamaki, famed for its "onsen" hot springs and home to the Kenji Miyazawa Memorial Museum, dedicated to the renowned children's author. The restaurant owner said that in 2019, Matsuo seemed to come to the city once every one or two months.

Matsuo had told him he was looking for a place to live out his days. When asked if he had a family, Matsuo said that he was now living alone. It was then that the restaurant owner suggested that he might like to move to Hanamaki.

He volunteered to be Matsuo's guarantor, and an apartment was found in the city's Towa neighborhood for him to rent. He was supposed to start living there in April, and had paid two months' rent in advance.

But during an end of March meeting with other residents of the apartment complex, the atmosphere changed. That night, Matsuo apparently told his restaurateur friend, "When I introduced myself and said 'I was living in Tokyo,' someone gave me a look of disgust and said, 'You came from Tokyo now?'"

Matsuo moved to Hanamaki on April 8, but soon his landlord was encouraging him to live somewhere else. A concierge at the apartment building told him that other residents had been saying he should not live there for the next two weeks.

It appears that, because elderly tenants at the apartment complex are eligible for national government rent subsidies, it was imperative that Matsuo register his new abode with city authorities and receive his new residence certificate as soon as possible. But according to the restaurant owner, when he tried to present his application, he was told to do it after two weeks. He left the city government office unable to complete the paperwork.

Matsuo gave up on moving into his apartment quickly, and that night he slept in the restauranteur's car. He seemed lonely but resigned to the idea that, because he had come from Tokyo, there was no way around all of these issues.

On April 9, the day after his night in the car, his landlord, perhaps by way of apology, provided him with an empty room at another property they owned. Two days later a fire broke out in the building next door. Matsuo burned to death. An 89-year-old neighborhood man hung his head and said, "I heard someone screaming 'help me' so many times, but I couldn't help them."

About the thinking of Matsuo's new neighbors, the restaurateur speculated, "It's a small town with a lot of older people. There's still no coronavirus infections confirmed here in Iwate, so maybe that's made people even more vigilant." About Matsuo himself, he said, "He was a quiet and docile man, but his love for Hanamaki came across. I feel sad knowing I'll never hear him tell me he's back again."

With the spread of the novel coronavirus, on April 7 Hanamaki began asking people moving into the prefecture to wait two weeks after arrival before registering their new addresses. A board set up inside Hanamaki city hall reads, "Submit your relocation papers after the (two-week) waiting period!"

Fourteen days is understood to be the longest incubation period for the novel coronavirus. A city government representative said, "Ultimately this is just a request. We will still process (residency registration) applications if asked."

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said, "We are not aware of any other examples (of this conduct). If they're effectively turning people away, then it's a problem." The Residential Basic Book Act states that moving-in documents should be filed within 14 days of relocating, but with the spread of coronavirus infections, the ministry has issued a notification to local governments asking them to ease the time requirements. The city of Hanamaki has cited the ministry's request as one of the reasons it is now asking new arrivals to wait two weeks before filing.

But the ministry's Residents Administration Policy and Management Division said of the notification, "It was meant to be information conveyed to people moving in, not for local governments to ask people to 'come again in two weeks.' This can't be called an appropriate response." The division added, "Even if they're saying, 'It's no more than a request,' how do people on the receiving end of those requests interpret them?"

It is also possibile that people who have yet to file their resident registrations are at disadvantages including being unable to receive public services. Regarding Toshiaki Matsuo's paperwork, the city government said, "We can't confirm if we had an application, but we would certainly have been flexible in responding to it."

Elsewhere in Iwate Prefecture, the capital Morioka has been issuing similar requests to new residents from overseas or the capital region since April 8.

(Japanese original by Yutaka Yamada, Morioka Bureau)

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