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Restaurant Owner Selected as Olympic Torchbearer Dies in Fire After Becoming Despondent Over Impact of Coronavirus Crisis (updated)

On the evening of Apr. 30, the 54-year-old male owner of a restaurant in Tokyo's Nerima ward specializing in tonkatsu deep fried pork cutlets died from full-body burns in a fire at the restaurant. The man had been one of the people chosen as a torchbearer for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics torch relay. With the coronavirus crisis causing both the postponement of the Olympics and a loss of business at the restaurant, the man had recently started talking pessimistically about the future to those around him. With evidence of the man's body having been doused in tonkatsu cooking oil, metropolitan police from the Hikarigaoka Police Station are carefully examining the cause of the fire.

At around 10:00 p.m. on the 30th, the fire broke out in the tonkatsu restaurant on the first floor of a three-story building. A neighborhood resident who noticed smoke called the fire department. Firefighters found the floor and part of a wall burning, with the man lying on the floor in the customer seating area. He was rushed to a hospital but was pronounced dead an hour and a half later. Given the circumstances of the scene police believe that he may have poured cooking oil over himself, but no suicide note has been found.

According to local residents and an interview on a local cable TV program, the restaurant has been in business for 50 years and the man was its third owner. Born in Toda, Saitama, he moved to Tokyo's Itabashi ward when he was in junior high school. After attending a local high school, he studied economics in Hosei University's night school program, working a part-time job during the day to pay for tuition. After completing his degree he also studied at Keio University. After earning a master's degree at the Nihon University graduate school he and his wife took over the restaurant run by her parents and started operating it together. He played a leading role in the local business association's activities and was well-known as having a strong sense of community.

The man's hobby was marathon running. In 2005 he ran his first marathon at the Arakawa Shimin Marathon in Tokyo and was greeted at the finish line by his three daughters. He was interviewed by Runners magazine for a feature on first-time marathoners, and runners from across Japan who read the article began coming to his restaurant whenever they came to Tokyo. Many came to eat every year when they ran the Tokyo Marathon.

The man started taking part in races around the country and hoped to run a marathon in all 47 prefectures. In 2010 he did his first 100 km ultramarathon. In the final part of the race he encountered a female runner in distress who asked him for help. Stopping to help her and accompanying her all the way to the finish, he went over the finish cutoff time and didn't receive a finisher's certificate. When he returned home his daughters gave him a handmade one they had made themselves. His dream was to help create a full marathon in Nerima.

In December last year he was selected as an Olympic torchbearer. Writing about how much it meant to him, the man wrote on his Facebook page, "My wife and children were kind enough to correct all the mistakes on my application. It's like a dream." He would have carried the torch through his neighborhood of Nerima on July 18.

Not long after he was chosen, the coronavirus began to spread worldwide. In March when it had become clear that the Olympics were at risk the man wrote on his Facebook page, "I can't help but hope that the torch will still be able to reach the New National Stadium." As the postponement of the Olympics became more and more likely, the man's deep disappointment was obvious to those around him. But at the same time, he posted positively on Facebook, writing, "I'm thankful that I'll be able to keep welcoming customers to our restaurant and cooking for them, today and going forward."

On Mar. 24 the official postponement of the Olympics was announced, and on Apr. 7 the national government issued a declaration of emergency. In response to the metropolitan government's request for restaurants and bars to cut back on their operations, on Apr. 13 the man closed the tonkatsu restaurant temporarily. On Facebook he wrote, "I love to work. For almost 30 years family vacations have been a rarity, and I've worked even on national holidays. It makes me question myself, but I want to do my part to help prevent the disease from spreading."

The man tried operating the restaurant on a takeout-only basis, but he told a friend, "If the corona doesn't go away then no matter what I do it's going to fail." On the 29th the man told the same friend, "I want to quit doing the restaurant." A 78-year-old colleague from the local business association was worried about the man's despondent state of mind and consulted the Nerima ward office for help on the 30th, the day of the fire. "Everybody loved him," the colleague said. "Why did this have to happen?"

In his final Facebook post on the 28th, the man wrote about not being able to find a supply of the disinfectants needed to reopen the restaurant, revealing the hidden pain of not being able to see a way forward. "We're back to zero," he wrote. At that time the likelihood that the state of emergency would be extended past its original May 6 ending date was being discussed in the media. At the end of his post he wrote, "For the sake of your own life, your family, your loved ones, your society, stop the spread of the disease. I've taken those words to heart again."

A family spokesperson told the media, "We can't even begin to understand what has happened."

source articles:
translated and edited by Brett Larner

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