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20 years after crowding deaths on Japanese footbridge, 1 woman recalls her first love

Mai Hirono is seen looking at a photo album from her days as a kindergartner, on July 6, 2021, in Kobe. (Mainichi/Ai Murata)

KOBE -- I loved your kindness, your cheerful character and how you were always smiling. One summer 20 years ago, you were on your way to a fireworks show. That's when you were sucked into that collapsing crowd, people piling onto each other. You were only 7 when your life ended. You still live and continue growing up in me today. That's why, every year, I send you chocolates on Valentine's Day. It's the one thing I can do.

    In 1998, Mai Hirono, now 27, met Dai Arima at a kindergarten in the west Japan city of Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture. He was the kind of child who went to a friend when they were crying, or offered a hand when they fell over. He drew people to him naturally.

    The two played together a lot. He was the first person other than her father that she gave Valentine's Day chocolate to. The young Hirono had a faint sense that she wanted to be around him.

    On Valentine's Day 2001, after they had started at elementary school, Hirono thought about giving Dai chocolate, but they'd had fewer chances to talk now they were in separate classes. She decided she'd just do it next year, and let it go. Five months later, the accident happened.

    The night of July 21, 2001, was the fireworks show at the Okura Beach summer festival in the city. Dai left home with his father Masaharu, and mother Yukiko, now 62 and 51 respectively, and his big sister Chiharu, 9 at the time.

    Just before 8 p.m. they began crossing the footbridge linking JR Asagiri Station with the beach. As they crossed, they looked up at the fireworks exploding in the sky above. The number of people on the bridge began to increase visibly, and by about 8:15 p.m. they couldn't move. When the fireworks ended, the pressure from the crowd grew even stronger. Masaharu and Yukiko physically shielded the children from the crush of people.

    At about 8:45 p.m., the bridge was as hot as a steam bath. The press of bodies was like a water pipe bursting, and the crowd surged. The family was separated in the confusion.

    Masaharu went looking for the children. He found Dai had been crushed. Chiharu was bleeding profusely from a head wound. Dai was given CPR, but he had no vital signs. Sister and brother were taken to the hospital, but neither could be revived.

    Eleven people died in the incident, and around 250 were injured. Of the deceased, nine were children aged 2 to 9, while the two others were women in their 70s. An accident investigation report by the Akashi city government said that there were about 6,400 people on the footbridge which measured approximately 3-6 meters wide, with 13-15 people packed into every square meter.

    Two days after the incident, Hirono attended Dai's wake. Lying in his coffin, he looked at peace, like he was sleeping. Hirono thought about how she had wanted to spend more time with him.

    Every morning, she would go to the piano and play "Let it Be" by The Beatles, the song performed at the mourning ceremony at her elementary school. As she struck the keys, the feelings of regret would well up within her. She asked herself why she hadn't given him the chocolates on Valentine's Day.

    On the next Feb. 14, Hirono went to see Dai's parents, and gave them chocolate in the shape of a bear. She prayed at the Buddhist altar in their home, and apologized to Dai for not giving him any chocolate the year before. She told him she had this year.

    Twenty years on, Hirono still hesitates to go to the scene of the accident. Being there makes her think of how terrible it must have been for Dai. When she wonders what might have happened if he had lived, her chest tightens.

    Every Valentine's Day, she visits the house where Dai was born. When she chooses the chocolate, she wonders what kind of things he might like had he lived to be her age now. Over the years she's gone on to become an independent adult, and the places she buys chocolates from have changed from supermarkets to department stores. The chocolates she chooses tend to be more bitter, too.

    Hirono is now an occupational therapist at a hospital, and lives in Kobe. Even when times are tough, she urges herself to keep going. She asks Dai to keep supporting her as she works hard, and hopes they can keep going together.

    After the accident, Dai's mother Yukiko made another connection, too. It was with Chiharu's best friend, Ayaka Shibata, who is now 29 years old. Even after the incident, Shibata and Yukiko kept in touch.

    In February 2020, the eatery where Yukiko worked closed down. She was struggling to find work when Shibata stepped in to help her get a job at a processed foods plant run by her father. Now, Shibata and Yukiko work at the same factory.

    Yukiko continues to apologize to her late children for not being able to protect them. But she sees her relationship with Shibata, who is a kind of daughter to her, as a gift from Chiharu.

    Five individuals including a former senior officer at Hyogo Prefectural Police's Akashi Police Station, Akashi City Hall staff and an official at the security firm for the event were prosecuted and found guilty of causing death or injury due to professional negligence.

    In a civil case for reparations launched by the bereaved families, issues of police underestimating crowd control measures came to light. Masaharu said, "To ensure an accident like this never happens again, I want society not to forget this incident."

    (Japanese original by Ai Murata, Kobe Bureau)

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