A mother's grief, 1.6 million steps later

A mother's grief, 1.6 million steps later

Tokyo may be rife with year-end commotion, but all remains quiet in the emergency stairwells of a high-rise apartment building in Minato Ward. Like any other ordinary day, a woman's footsteps reverberate through the white walls.

With a home on the 12th floor, Masako Ichikawa, 62, always takes the stairs without fail. Precisely 264 steps from top to bottom, a round-trip each day means she takes 192,720 steps a year. Since the accident 8½ years ago, Ichikawa has trudged up and down these stairs taking more than 1.6 million steps.

Taking the stairs is a struggle, making her pant and even sweat in winter. Why doesn't she take the elevator? "I still can't trust it with my life."

A dependable son

On June 3, 2006, Ichikawa was making dinner in the kitchen when she heard a chorus of screeching police and ambulance sirens. Drawing closer, the sounds eventually stopped in front of her apartment building. Soon, her uneasy feeling became a living nightmare: Her eldest son, 16-year-old high school student Hirosuke, had died after being crushed by an elevator that suddenly ascended as he was getting off on the 12th floor.

Ichikawa gave birth to him when she was 37. Hoping he would make friends among local people, Ichikawa took a young Hirosuke along to join a local group of musicians versed in traditional Japanese festival music. Racing to see who could learn taiko drums and kane bells faster, they went on to perform at local summer festivals.

After entering Koyamadai High School in Tokyo, Hirosuke joined the school's baseball team and lost himself in the world of sports. He would come home from school and practice pitching, using scrunched-up newspaper his mother would often help him make.

When he was about to reach his second year, he landed a regular spot on the baseball team to fill in for an injured senior member. "I hope I can help my mentors," Hirosuke said. Ichikawa was happy, realizing her son was growing up to be a dependable man. Tragedy struck not long afterward.

The rescue operation was prolonged and Ichikawa called out her son's name until her throat was raw. But in the end, her beloved son didn't make it. "Why did the accident happen?" She asked herself. "Machines that risk people's lives should be under strict safety management."

Truth be told, the elevator manufactured by Schindler Elevator K.K. had problems in the past. Her pleas to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry to open an investigation fell on deaf ears. The ministry fobbed her off by stating it was "not an accident investigation body." The police merely repeated that the accident was "under investigation."

"At the time, I'm sure the bereaved family was in a very difficult place," said Yuji Maekawa, a 59-year-old lawyer who has supported Ichikawa since the accident.

At the end of 2007, 1½ years after her son's death, Ichikawa was invited to a year-end party held by the parents of her son's baseball teammates. "No one is willing to take action," she lamented at the party.

The parents decided they had to do something. Ichikawa and the parents kicked off a campaign early the next year to collect signatures on the streets, calling on the government to investigate the cause of the tragedy. When they took a break from their activist work, the campaign members laughed as they looked at Ichikawa's face. She realised there was a red imprint around her mouth, from pressing a megaphone into her face when enthusiastically asking for support. "Oh gosh! Completely red." Gazing at the mark in a mirror, she smiled for the first time since she lost her son.

Ichikawa and the parents collected a total of 460,000 signatures, all the way from Hokkaido through to the Kyushu region. Everyone involved had wept at the heaping mountain of signatures.

In 2009, the government established the Consumer Affairs Agency aimed at unifying the consumer affairs administration. But a similar accident occurred in Kanazawa in 2012. Afterward, Ichikawa's case was chosen as the first case investigated by the Consumer Safety Investigation Commission launched by the agency. In August 2013, the commission announced an investigation into Ichikawa's case in a bid to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.

'His death can't be in vain'

On Dec. 16, 2014, a stern-faced Ichikawa sat behind prosecutors at a courtroom in Tokyo District Court. Ichikawa had filed a suit against officials of Schindler Elevator, as well as an official who was responsible for the maintenance of the elevator that claimed Hirosuke's life.

Ichikawa has attended all 56 hearings since 2013. Listening to disputes with defendants over technical matters was no easy feat, but prosecutors finally made their closing arguments.

Her husband, Kazutami, who had also been searching for answers, died at the age of 59 in April last year.

"The longer it takes to find the truth, the more we suffer as the bereaved. I want a system in place that can pinpoint the cause of accidents faster," Ichikawa stressed.

Ichikawa hopes to report some day to those who supported her in the signature-collecting campaign that "the cause of the accident was resolved, the right people took responsibility, and it will all lead to better safety for everyone." She went on to say, "Only when I can report that to them, only then, can I say for the first time that the death of my son was not in vain."

Ichikawa's health has seen better days - climbing the stairs takes longer with each passing year. But to this day, nearly 50 of her supporters observe the hearings.

In spring 2014, the Koyamadai High School baseball team participated in the National Invitational High School Baseball Tournament, fulfilling their dreams of "taking our senior teammate Hirosuke to Koshien Stadium."

"I managed to make it this far only because of the support from those whom I met through my son," Ichikawa said. "All I can do is climb, step by step."Speech

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