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Until about ten years ago the Japanese police had a fairly solid record of crime detection. Then things started to go wrong; and for some reason police failures and bungling seemed to coincide with collapse of the Japanese economy.

A good example of the police incompetence is the Wakayama curry-poisoning incident of 25 July 1998. At a summer festival in the Sonobe district of Wakayama (450 kilometers west of Tokyo), four people died and 63 were sickened after eating curry spiced with arsenic. In no time, the whole country was practically overwhelmed by a spate of copycat poisonings.

For over two months the Japanese police—up to then normally a paradigm of efficiency—ran around like the Keystone Cops, bungling one lead after another. Then on October 4 they arrested a couple from Sonobe and charged them with a string of offences, ranging from insurance fraud to attempted murder by poisoning. This last charge sparked off speculation that they were responsible for the curry poisoning too.

Eventually, the police charged Masumi Hayashi with the Wakayama poisoning and also of attempting to poison her husband, Kenji, on at least two occasions.

It is a matter of fact that the Japanese police have a pretty poor record when it comes to investigating cases of poisoning. Since World War II there have been three waves of poisoning (not including the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system and a village in Matsumoto). And so far the only one of these cases to be satisfactorily cleared up is the Wakayama incident.

The first poisoning incident occurred on 26 January 1948. Someone posing as a government health official entered the Teikoku Bank in Shiinamachi, Tokyo, just after closing time. He persuaded the 16 members of staff to drink poison, saying that it was medicine against dysentery, which had broken out in the neighborhood.

The so-called health official showed remarkable ingenuity and self confidence. After the members of staff were assembled, he produced a bottle and used a pipette to draw some liquid into a cup. Then he demonstrated how to drink it by extending the tongue so that the liquid would go quickly and directly to the throat. Next he poured some liquid from the same bottle into sixteen cups and instructed them to drink simultaneously. He claimed that this was important because after precisely one minute, they would be given a second medicine. Unquestioningly, they did as he said. Ten people died on the spot, and two more died later. Four people were fortunate enough to survive and bear witness to the incident.

Seven months later, an artist called Sadamichi Hirasawa was arrested and charged with the murders. After strenuous questioning, Hirasawa confessed but later withdrew his confession, saying that he had been coerced. Nevertheless, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. But the sentence was never carried out, and he eventually died in 1987 at the age of 95, after nearly 40 years on death row.

There are many inconsistencies in the police case against Hirasawa. First, in his confession he used the word “koppu,” which in Japanese means “glass for drinking alcohol.” The survivors all claimed to have drunk from a “chawan,” which is a Japanese-style tea cup. Sixty years ago, no Japanese would have mistaken the two. Another inconsistency was that Hirasawa said he had carried the poison in a beer bottle and that he had poured it directly into the glasses. Survivors contradicted this claim, too.

Asked to identify Hirasawa as the culprit, survivors of the crime said that he looked nothing like the man who came to the bank that day. Unfortunately for Hirasawa, as he had confessed, the police ignored all the evidence that did not point to his guilt.

There was also a strange discrepancy in the analysis of the poison that killed the victims. Tokyo University, the top national university, and Keio University, the top private university, were chosen to carry out autopsies—they were given six bodies each—and their results contradicted each other.

Keio University was the first to announce the results. The forensic scientists at Keio announced that the poison was acetone cynohydrin. Tokyo University, on the other hand, did not release the results until after Hirasawa had been arrested and charged with the crime. Tokyo University scientists stated that potassium cyanide was the poison.

These strange contradictions are very significant because, while potassium cyanide was a fairly well known poison, and one that was relatively easy to obtain, acetone cyanohydrin certainly was not. It was a relatively new poison that had been developed by the notorious Unit 7231, the biological warfare unit of the Imperial Japanese Army. Thus, if acetone cynohydrin had been the agent, it would seem unlikely that someone like Hirasawa could have committed the crime.

Both poisons act differently, an important factor in administering them. The potassium cyanide kills its victims instantaneously; so it would have been difficult to persuade the slower drinkers to swallow if they were to see their colleagues suddenly drop down dead. Acetone cyanohyrin, on the other hand, acts a few minutes after it has been swallowed, so it would be a more suitable poison for this type of crime.

Some time before the crime, two boxes of acetone cyanhydrin had disappeared from the Army Research Center, and there was great suspicion that the culprit was somehow connected to the biological warfare unit. In fact, the police were starting to look closely at some possible suspects connected to this unit. That changed, however, after Hirasawa’s arrest, when the police suddenly lost all interest in the previous and more obvious suspects.

The second wave of poisonings, which is just as mysterious as the Teikoku incident, started in March 1984 and ran through to late 1985. During this time, six major foodstuffs manufacturers were targeted by extortionists.

It began with a bizarre kidnapping on 18 March 1985 in Nishinomiya, a city located between Osaka and Kobe. Two men wearing ski masks broke into the house of Ezaki Kasuhisa, president of Ezaki-Glico, Japan’s second largest confectioner, and dragged him from his bathtub. They wrapped a towel around him, covered his head with a cloth bag and took him away in a red car.

That signaled the start of an extraordinary crime spree that has still not been solved. The kidnalppers of Ezaki demanded one billion yen in used banknotes and one hundred kilograms of gold. Fortunately for Ezaki, he managed to escape from a hut by a railway sidings, where he had been left bound and gagged, before payment was made.

The kidnappers then tried to extort the money from the company by threatening to poison the company’s products and place them in shops across the company. Soon they started threatening other companies too.

On 8 April, two newspapers the Mainichi and the Sankei, received messages written on the same typewriter as the ransom note. The notes were addressed to “the fools in the police” and they challenged the police to make arrest in the case. The writer signed off as “the creature with twenty-one” faces.”

The salutation on the note was a fairly accurate description of the police and their efforts to catch the criminals. For eighteen months the police proved to be hopelessly inept. At one stage they were in hot pursuit of a car driven by the criminals, but it outran them on a public highway. They managed to capture a large amount of equipment used by the gang and even got close enough to one of them to compose a sketch of him. But they couldn’t arrest him. This character had peculiar facial features that led to him being nicknamed “the man with fox eyes.”

Recently, more theories on the case have appeared. One of the most telling is that the ring leader of the kidnappers was the president of a trading company with close ties to North Korea. He is supposed to have been involved in a scam that persuaded people to invest in a non-existent gold mine in North Korea, and around the time of the Ezaki kidnapping he apparently needed gold bullion to prove that the mine was doing well.

Three other people who fell under suspicion at the time were closely connected to the company president. The man with the fox eyes is said to have been an associate, another man is said to have had handwriting similar to that on the notes to the media. Another of his company employees owned a red car similar to that used in the kidnapping.

With all the circumstantial evidence it is surprising that no one has ever been arrested or even taken in for serious questioning. However, it seems that Ezaki himself refused to cooperate with the police, and there are rumors of a conflict between the local criminal police and the state security police.

This strange crime spree came to a sudden end on 12 August 1985, when the criminals sent another note to the media announcing the end of their criminal activities.

Whatever the original cause of this crime wave, one thing is sure. As soon as the extortion threats became public knowledge, a spate of copycat poisonings broke out. By the end of 1984 at least a dozen were documented.

The first of these occurred on 18 May, when a man called Coca-Cola and threatened to poison soft drinks unless the company paid him 50,000,000 yen. He was arrested when he went to make the pickup. A month later, a junior high school student was arrested after telephoning Glico’s Tokyo office and demanding 300,000,000 yen. In the same week a thirty-two-year-old man was arrested for trying to extort 30,000,000 yen from Ezaki-Glico. But as soon as the gang announced the official cessation of activities, the copycat poisonings also stopped.

The Wakayama poisonings stunned the whole country. Sonobe seemed an unlikely place for such a vicious crime but, obviously, something dark had been lurking under the surface of serenity. Revelers at a summer festival were served curry that had been prepared by volunteers, and they soon began to feel sick. By the next morning, four were dead and another 63 hospitalized.

The police stepped in and incompetence took over. First of all, it took them and the hospital staff a week to ascertain the cause of the poisoning. And even then they did not identify it correctly. That took weeks, and in the meantime some of those who had been poisoned became even sicker.

The investigation took an interesting turn when the police discovered that two men who dined regularly at the home of a Sonobe couple, and had frequently been hospitalized after eating there, had traces of arsenic in their hair. One of them, a 35-year-old man, had been insured by a dummy company operating out of the couple’s home. This company had been paid 6 million yen in insurance benefits for the man’s sickness. The same address was listed on the insurance policy of a 45-year-old company president who had also been treated for arsenic poisoning after eating there.

The residents of the house were then investigated for another insurance scam. In this case, the wife, Masumi Hayashi, had been scalded while cooking spaghetti at home. To receive the insurance money, she claimed that the injuries were sustained when she had crashed into a bonfire while riding her bicycle home. The deeper the investigation went, the more insurance scams the police dug up.

The police assumed that Hayashi had put arsenic into the curry at the festival to collect on insurance policies she had taken out on several of her acquaintances due to attend the festival. They suspected that her original plan had been to poison her husband and his acquaintances at a mahjong party. When the party was canceled, however, she had to change her plans.

Traces of arsenic on cups found among the garbage from the festival matched the arsenic used by her husband in his termite extermination business. Witnesses also reported seeing her alone near the curry pots on the day of the festival.

At her trial, Hayashi denied responsibility for the poisoning and then refused to testify. She was found guilty and sentenced to death (by hanging), and she immediately appealed both the verdict and the sentence. On 25 June 2005, however, a court in Osaka upheld the conviction and death sentence. Now she waits on death row for the sentence to be carried out. When it comes, it will come quickly for in Japan prisoners are given less than two hours of their execution—and it is never announced publicly in advance.

Hayashi must surely go on record as one of the stupidest mass murderers in history. If she had stuck to quietly poisoning her guests, she might have gotten away with it for years. But when over sixty people are poisoned, even the most inefficient authorities are going to start looking.

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

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 “Not many people actually die eating fugu,” said one of my friends a few months ago, as we dined in a restaurant in Tsukiji, home to Tokyo’s giant fish market. He dipped a raw piece of the deadly fish into the sauce and popped it into his mouth. “The trouble is,” he went on, “that whenever anybody does die, the media jump on it and blow it out of all proportion.”

 

He was right, of course. Not many people do die eating one of the most obscene fishes you could imagine. But there is always the chance that it can happen—and that seems be the attraction.

 

Every year hundreds of thousands of Japanese put their lives on a plate, literally, in a gastronomic form of Russian roulette. They pay a fortune to sit down to a full course fugu meal. Most of them live to talk about the experience the next day, but each year about fifty of them do not. They die still thinking clearly but unable to speak or move and, finally, breathe. Nevertheless, fugu is now more popular than ever, with annual consumption way up to the tens of thousands of tons.

 

But what exactly is fugu? Well, fugu is the general name for the fish of the Tetraondontidae family, which in English are known as blowfish, puffer, globefish or swellfish. Although fugu can be deadly, they have been eaten for hundreds of years in Japan, except for during the feudal period (16031868), when the regime of the Tokugawa shogunate strictly prohibited the consumption of fugu. But as soon as the shogunate was overturned, eating fugu became popular again.

 

What is it that makes fugu so deadly? The simple answer is that the fugu poison, known as tetrodoxin, is so powerful that a mere one or two milligrams is the estimated lethal dose for an adult. It is, in fact, 1250 times deadlier than cyanide. The poison blocks sodium channels in nerve tissues, ultimately paralysing the muscles, leading to respiratory arrest as the cause of death. And there is no proven antidote. About 60% of puffer poisonings prove fatal. The poison is found in the ovaries, intestines and livers, and if even a touch of these internal organs is left in the fish, the diner can die within minutes; so preparation of the fish must be carefully supervised.

 

To ensure safety in the consumption of fugu, government regulations state that fugu must be prepared by a licensed fugu chef who has taken intensive courses, served an extensive apprenticeship and passed written exams. But in Japan it is common to break the rules to cement a personal relationship, and no chef would think twice about bending the rules to please a treasured customer, even if it means risking tragedy.

 

Tragedy struck Mitsugoro Bando VIII, Japan’s leading Kabuki actor, on January 16, 1975 after a meal of fugu in one of the country’s top fugu restaurants. Bando, who had been designated a “living national treasure” by the government, was also a gourmet with a passion for fugu. Dining with three friends who, afraid of being poisoned, declined the livers, Bando rashly ate all four servings of the poison-filled organs, three of which are considered strong enough to kill a man.

 

Before going to bed on the night of his death, Bando told his wife that he was feeling great, as if he were floating on air because he had eaten fugu for dinner. He died of paralysis and convulsions in the middle of the night.

 

It was, and still is, prohibited to serve the fugu liver in restaurants, so the restaurant was suspended for ten days. But Bando’s demise did not stop the customers arriving in droves. If anything, it increased the popularity of the restaurant.

 

Why the Japanese should make a ritual eating deadly poisonous fish is difficult for foreigners to comprehend. For many, the elegant, death-defying event is a status symbol, and some say that consumption of the meat produces a pleasant, warm tingling. Connoisseurs, take the idea a little bit further and try to ingest a little bit of the poison, just enough to cause a warm buzz. And, like Bando, they sometimes overstep the danger mark.

 

 

 

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

All rights reserved

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