Sadamichi Hirasawa poisoned 16 people for the equivalent of a few hundred pounds in cash. Or did he?
by Robert Walsh
Just before closing time at the Teigin Bank in the suburbs of Tokyo, on January 26th, 1948, a nondescript and middle-aged man walked in through the front entrance. He was later identified, possibly incorrectly, as artist Sadamichi Hirasawa, but claimed to be Dr. Jiro Yamaguchi and had a business card to prove it. He left less than an hour later, but what happened between his arrival and departure was to shock the whole Japanese nation and reverberate through the Japanese courts for decades to come.
The man identifying himself as Dr.Yamaguch arrived wearing an armband bearing the label “Metropolitan Office, City Hall of Tokyo,” carrying a medical bag over his shoulder. He explained that dysentery had broken out in the area and that he had been sent to vaccinate the bank’s staff. Tokyo having been very heavily bombed during the later stages of World War II meant that dysentery (and other diseases) could still pose serious public health problems and, the Japanese being a people usually deferential to and respectful of authority figures, the bank staff both believed and obeyed him implicity. None of them suspected, even slightly, that Dr. Yamaguchi wasn’t who he claimed to be.
Most of them would pay for this trust with their lives.
Yamaguchi explained that the vaccine would be in the form of two doses of liquid, to be swallowed one after the other. He administered the doses to 15 staff members and a child of one of the employees and waited for them to take effect. Within minutes, all 16 collapsed on the floor of the bank. Out of the 16 people administered high doses of what prosecutors claimed was potassium cyanide, only four survived. Ten (including the child) died at the scene and another two died later in hospital. Yamaguchi then scooped up only 160,000 yen (worth $1,392/£754/1,000 Euro’s), leaving another 180,000 yen untouched in the bank tellers’ drawers. He left as quietly and discreetly as he arrived, leaving behind him a scene of utter carnage.
It wasn’t until August 21st that a suspect was brought in for interrogation. A painter named Sadamichi Hirasawa fell under suspicion owing to the common Japanese habit of people swapping their business cards. The poisoner had caused two other, much smaller, incidents since the mass killing at the Teigin Bank in January, using the names Dr. Jiro Yamaguchi and Shigeru Matsui. Dr. Jiro Yamaguchi was swiftly proven to be an entirely fake identity, he never existed. Shigeru Matsui, on the other hand, was very much alive. When questioned, he told police he had swapped 593 business cards including one with Hirasawa. Hirasawa had since been identified by two surviving witnesses from the bank.
On being arrested, Hirasawa’s home was quickly searched and he was found to be in possession of a large amount of cash that he refused to account for. It has been suggested that this money came, not from the proceeds of mass murder, but from the highly secretive (and equally illegal) market in pornographic artwork that Hirasawa had also been accused of producing and I think he may well have at least dabbled in this lucrative trade. He was swiftly brought in for questioning and spent the next three weeks being questioned all day, every day. He also alleged that the confession he gave, and quickly retracted, was extracted unwillingly and under torture.
At his trial, Hirasawa’s lawyers offered a defense of partial insanity based on the fact that Hirasawa admitted to suffering from Korsakoff’s Psychosis. Korsakoff’s Psychosis is most commonly associated with chronic alcoholism and can severely affect a sufferer’s memory and also make them prone to frequent bouts of dishonesty, a plea that cut no ice whatsoever with the court.
Hirasawa was quickly found guilty as charged, the court taking his confession (in accordance with Japanese law at the time) as being a solid piece of evidence in spite of Hirasawa’s swift retraction. Until 1949 a confession was always considered solid evidence in a Japanese court, irrespective of how it was obtained. Hirasawa’s allegations of having been tortured cut no ice either. He was then sentenced to death by hanging for the murders of the staff at the Teigin Bank. The death sentence was upheld in 1955, Hirasawa’s case having taken that long to come up for appeal.
Successive groups of Japanese lawyers filed no less than 18 appeals over the next 32 years, which was how long Hirasawa waited on death row.
Hirasawa as Scapegoat to Protect Japan’s Clandestine Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army
There remains a great many doubts over whether or not Hirasawa was really a mass murderer. For starters, there was no conclusive evidence to link him directly to the crime. Out of the 40 or so employees at the bank who witnessed the poisoner arriving and administering his fake medicine, only two could positively identify Hirasawa as the killer, despite their having been at work in the bank when Hirasawa was accused of mass murder.
In fact, his guilt was considered so doubtful that, during his 32 years on death row, no less than 33 successive Minister’s of Justice refused to sign his death warrant. Without a death warrant there cannot be an execution, under Japanese law. A couple of hundred other condemned inmates were hanged, but Hirasawa was, for some reason, always overlooked. Even the hardline Minister of Justice, Isaji Tanaka, who became notorious on November 13, 1967 when he signed no less than 23 death warrants in one day, openly refused to sign Hirasawa’s, stating resolutely that he doubted Hirasawa’s guilt.
The doubts regarding Hirasawa’s guilt are many and a mixture of the obvious and the concealed. To start with, why murder 12 people and incapacitate four others for what amounted to petty theft? Petty thieves do not usually resort to mass murder, steal a small amount of money and then leave more than they actually stole just lying around.
Secondly, any confession obtained under torture is notoriously unreliable. If you hurt a suspect often and badly enough while demanding a confession then, eventually, most people will not only confess. They will, in all likelihood, confess to whatever you want them to if they think the confession will stop the torture.
Hirasawa is believed by some to have been used as a fall guy, a pawn sacrificed to protect members of a notoriously evil special unit of the former Imperial Japanese Army. That unit was known as Unit 731 and specialized in the development of Japan’s weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical and biological weapons.
“The Asian Auschwitz”
Known as the “Asian Auschwitz,” Unit 731 is said to have caused the deaths of at least 250,000 Chinese and it is alleged that large numbers of British, American and Australian POW’s were also used for what the Imperial Japanese Army politely referred to as “lethal human experimentation.”
The death rate was markedly lower than the Nazi equivalent, but the experiments conducted were every bit as abhorrent. Many members of Unit 731 were later picked up by the Allies, especially the Americans and, rather than being shipped back for trial and punishment, were offered an opportunity to do weapons research for the American military, at the WMD facility at Fort Detrick in Maryland, instead of the Japanese.
It is believed by some students of the case that a member of Unit 731, whether acting as a rogue agent or acting in a clandestine field test, may well have been the real poisoner. The evidence for this is that, during the war, it was standard practice for Unit 731 to administer doses of poisons and/or biotoxins to prisoners under the guise of vaccinations. The prisoners were then monitored and the effects of the poison or biotoxin studied. The Teigin Bank poisoner did this, by telling his victims that they were to be protected against dysentery.
The small amount of money actually stolen, and the larger amount left behind, could lead to speculation that the supposed robbery was not a robbery as much as a field test. Also familiar to victims of Unit 731would have been the fact that the victims of the Teigin Bank massacre were given their poison in two doses, as this was a common form of experimentation for Unit 731.
The precise toxin used is also open to question. At Hirasawa’s trial the prosecution alleged that he had used potassium cyanide to slaughter his victims. Unfortunately for the prosecution, the symptoms displayed by the victims (including the survivors) resemble much more the effects of hydrogen cyanide. Now some may think that the type of cyanide employed makes no difference, but it definitely does in this case. Unit 731 had long been developing a new and highly lethal toxin named acetone cyanohydrin. Its effects are highly similar to those of hydrogen cyanide poisoning, as the element of acetone cyanohydrin most easily absorbed into the body is hydrogen cyanide. There is absolutely no way that a civilian like Hirasawa could have obtained acetone cyanohydrin, but members (or former members) of Unit 731 would definitely have had access.
Furthermore, the administration of the poison in two separate doses was a well-known hallmark of Unit 731. It would also require great skill (and presumably no small amount of experience) to successfully administer the poison in a manner that wasn’t immediately fatal for, if the first victim began dying before all the victims had been successfully poisoned, the alarm would certainly have been raised and perhaps the poisoner could have been apprehended. Sadamichi Hirasawa was a painter, not a chemist or chemical warfare expert. There is absolutely no evidence whatever that he even knew the first thing about poisons and poisoning.
There is also the fact that 33 successive Minister’s of Justice failed to authorise Hirasawa’s execution. Not even Isaji Tanaka felt able to order that Hirasawa be hanged. Not only is it very strange that so many Ministers, even hardline ones, felt unable to order his death, but many other Japanese convicts were executed while Hirasawa was in the Death House for 32 years.
This also neatly torpedoes one old theory for his continued survival, which was that the Japanese custom is that signing a death warrant means bad luck and thus no Minister of Justice wanted to be unlucky. Also, Hirasawa may have confessed, but he was swift to retract the confession he made on the grounds of alleged torture by his interrogators. Not only that, he had 32 years on death row to either give up the lie or accidentally expose himself as a fraud. He did neither while waiting for his date with the hangman.
Medical tests to examine Hirasawa’s brain tissue confirm a level of deterioration that was not down to old age and far more likely to be a severe case of encephalomyelitis. This would tally well with the defense pleading partial insanity.
Hirasawa was officially the longest-serving condemned inmate in the world. He spent much of his time (and he had plenty to spend) on painting and writing his autobiography entitled My Will: The Teikoku Bank Case.
In 1981, a lawyer named Makoto Endo took over leadership of Hirasawa’s legal team. He appealed against the sentence in 1985 on the grounds that Japan’s Statute of Limitations (Japanese inmates must be executed within 30 years of sentencing) had run out and demanded Hirasawa’s release on that basis. He was overruled by the Japanese courts, which rendered an opinion that Hirasawa’s death penalty would only have begun when his death warrant was signed. As his death warrant was never actually signed, his capital punishment had not, in the opinion of the Japanese courts, even begun yet.
As the 1980’s dragged on, Sadamichi Hirasawa’s health began to deteriorate and he became steadily weaker. He finally died of pneumonia, still a condemned mass murderer under sentence of death, on May 10, 1987.