The fire consumed the fourth floor of the building in Osaka, which housed a medical office.
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Makiko Inoue, Motoko Rich and
OSAKA — In Japan, residents normally assume they can go about their daily lives — riding the train, going to work or visiting a doctor — without worrying about their basic safety. Crime of all varieties is relatively rare, and the murder rate is among the lowest in the world.
But for the third time in less than two months, a suspected arson attack has shaken the country’s sense of security.
At least 24 people died after a fire on Friday that burned through a psychiatric clinic in a busy office building in Osaka, the largest city in western Japan. Twenty-eight people were taken to the hospital, and three were in critical condition on Friday night.
The fire — which the police said may have been set by a man in his 50s or 60s seen carrying a leaking paper bag — came just six weeks after a train rider dressed as the Joker injured 17 people in Tokyo as he attacked passengers with a knife and tried to set a blaze on board.
Early last month, another man was arrested on arson charges after he set a fire on a bullet train in Kyushu in southern Japan.
Friday’s blaze came two years after the most notorious episode of arson in Japan’s modern history. A fire at an anime studio in Kyoto, not far from Osaka, killed 33 people and injured dozens in one of the country’s worst cases of mass murder in decades.
In that case, as well as the incidents on the Tokyo train line and the bullet train in Kyushu, the suspects told the police that they wanted to kill as many people as possible.
Friday’s fire was first reported around 10:20 a.m. and was put out in less than 30 minutes. Rescue workers were seen carrying people out of the building on stretchers, the national broadcaster, NHK, reported, and video footage showed firefighters on ladders stretching up to the sixth floor.
Neither the police nor the Fire Department released any further details about a suspect or a motive.
According to the Fire Department, 80 engines responded to the scene. The blaze burned an area of about 270 square feet of an eight-story downtown building, steps from the biggest train station in the port city. The fourth floor, where the fire is believed to have begun, was home to a medical clinic specializing in both internal medicine and psychiatry.
The number of the deaths and the relative speed with which the fire was put out suggested that there may have been deficiencies in the building’s fire protection, said Yuji Kumamaru, who runs an emergency response and disaster prevention consultancy in Tokyo.
“My initial thought was that the building construction design itself is the most important factor,” Mr. Kumamaru said.
The narrow building is on a crowded four-lane street in the center of the city and was built in 1970. Mr. Kumamaru said some older buildings did not have the recommended two exits per floor or fireproofing on interior finishes. Strapped fire departments, he said, are not always able to conduct regular inspections for smoke detectors or to ensure that exits are clear of any blockages.
Mr. Kumamaru said the victims were more likely to have died of suffocation or smoke inhalation than from burns.
Two decades ago, 44 people died in a major fire in a downtown building in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo. Most of those killed in that fire burned to death or were overcome by smoke as they tried to escape down a single narrow staircase in a nearly windowless building.
While also slender, the building in Osaka had windows across the front. Tomoyuki Fujimori, 64, who works at an appliance store across the street and was having coffee at a cafe next door at the time of the fire, said he witnessed a “bewildering” amount of smoke coming from the top of the building. But the flames on the fourth floor, he said, looked relatively small.
“I had the impression that the fire was not so bad,” he said. “So I never even imagined that so many people would die.”
Mr. Fujimori said that he has noticed news reports of other fires but that this was the first time he had seen anything like it in this neighborhood. “If it was arson, it could happen anywhere, any time,” he said. “That makes me worried.”
The Japanese police reported 786 cases of arson in 2020, about half as many as a decade earlier. This year, through the end of November, they have tracked 682.
Although investigators have not determined the cause of Friday’s fire, experts noted that the two most recent arsons were linked to suspects with mental health issues, and worried that the pandemic has elevated stress among people already suffering such problems.
Theresa A. Gannon, a professor of forensic psychology at the University of Kent in England, said arsonists may use fire as a coping mechanism. “Fire is a way to comfort or bring about a dramatic change in the environment or living conditions if things aren’t going well in their lives,” she said.
She added that at a time of deep social uncertainty — like the pandemic’s disruption of the economy and isolation of people from personal networks — those who already had trouble establishing intimate relationships might feel even more desperate. “Their vulnerabilities are being exacerbated,” she said.
On Twitter, some commenters expressed concern that the fire’s connection to a psychiatric clinic could increase prejudice against the mentally ill in a society where discussions of mental health are generally taboo.
“Even if the arsonist was a patient at that clinic, the only bad person is the person who set the fire,” one user on Twitter wrote. “Prejudice against all people who go to psychosomatic medicine clinics or people with mental disorders is not right.”
On Friday night, the fourth-floor windows in the Osaka building were covered in blue and yellow tarps, and a scrum of reporters stood outside while police officers continued to monitor the scene.
Yoko Morita, 45, who owns property near the building, said she was shocked by the fire and worried that it could be linked to someone undergoing severe stress because of the pandemic.
“Real in-person communication between people is happening less and less,” Ms. Morita said. “I think more people feel lonely,” she added.
Ben Dooley contributed reporting from Tokyo.