The Teigin Enigma: Sadamichi Hirasawa (S2E6)
Updated: Jun 14
In 1949, a man claiming to be a doctor walked into a Tokyo bank. By the time he left, he had stolen 160,000 yen and left twelve people dead or dying inside. Given the speed and sophistication of the killings, police assumed they were looking for a trained assassin. Instead, their investigation led to an unassuming landscape painter named Sadamichi Hirasawa. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Exterior of the Teikoku Ginko bank in Tokyo.
Sadamichi Hirasawa on trial in 1949. He was found guilty of committing the Teigin robbery largely on the basis of a confession.
Taken in February 1947, this photograph shows a group of children playing in front of a bombed-out business in Tokyo. Note the wasteland in the background. University of Hawaii, Emery D. Middleton Collection.
Taken in 1947, this photograph shows women who appear to be waiting in line to buy food or other necessities--they all have shopping bags. Such sights were common in the years following WWII due to the shortages and rationing of essential supplies. A thriving black market sprang up as a result. University of Hawaii, Emery D. Middleton Collection.
Late eighteenth-century example of shunga by Katsukawa Shunchō.
A Victim of Misjudgment Part 1 of 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prfJH0xrAG4&t=334s.
A Victim of Misjudgment Part 2 of 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6SQlBC0gRY.
---Aki, Ishigami. “The Reception of Shunga in the Modern Era: From Meiji to the Pre-WWII Years.” Translated by Rosina Buckland. Japan Review 26 (2013): 37-55.
---Burgess, John. “Death Row Denizen Waits and Paints: Japanese Nonagenarian Nears 30th Year.” Washington Post Washington, D.C., United States. Feb. 25, 1985.
---Harris, Sheldon. Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare 1932-1945, and the American Cover-up. London; New York: Routledge, 1994.
---Hornvak, Tom. “A Poisonous Legal Legacy.” Far Eastern Economic Review. December 21, 2004.
---Montra, Hayakawa. “Who Were the Audience for Shunga?” Translated by Andrew Gerstle. Japan Review 26 (2013): 17-36.
---Triplett, William. Flowering of the Bamboo: A Bizarre International Mystery. United States: Woodbine House, 1985.
The bank was dead quiet when police came in. The building stood in the Shinamachi district of northwestern Tokyo, at one of few street corners that survived the Allied air raids of World War II. Walk a hundred yards in either direction, and you’d come across edifices still in ruins, even now in 1948, almost three years after Japan’s surrender. Right across the way from the bank, which was called Teikoku Ginko, was the Nagasaki Shinto Shrine, situated on high ground and overlooking the neighborhood, its wood lustrous on sunnier days than this one. Inside the bank, police officers met with signs of routine business operations—stacks of money on one desktop, ledgers open on others. But then there were the bodies. They lay on the floorboards in wood-paneled corridors, the tiles in the bathroom, the tatami mats elsewhere. Corpses were clustered around a water fountain, as if the deceased had made a frantic dash for it. In many cases, the eyes of the dead remained wide-open, vomit and blood trickling from their lips. In one dark hallway, police located a lifeless man, flat on his back, an upright teacup between his legs. Baffled at first, the authorities wondered if food poisoning had killed these poor men and women. As they investigated, however, a more sinister explanation emerged. Somebody had murdered them and made off with the formidable sum of 160,000 yen.
The discovery of this crime scene marked the beginning of one of Japan’s most enduring mysteries, often referred to as the Teigin incident. (The term derives from the name of the bank, Teikoku Ginko—the “Tei” of “Teikoku” and the “Gin” of “Ginko” combine to form the abbreviation, “Teigin.”) Based on the speed and sophistication of the mass killing, police assumed they were looking for a trained assassin. Yet their inquiries ultimately led them to an unexpected suspect: the unassuming landscape painter, Sadamichi Hirasawa. Hirasawa would go to prison for the crimes, but his conviction would spark controversy and raise further questions about the Teigin incident. Today, we’ll hear the story of how the Teikoku killer claimed a dozen lives like it was nothing, how Hirasawa fell under suspicion, and why the painter’s defenders have connected these homicides to war crimes committed by the Japanese military. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 6 of Assassins . . .
The Teigin Enigma: Sadamichi Hirasawa
The Painter Blooms
Little is recorded about Hirasawa’s life prior to World War II. Based on what is known, however, he showed an early aptitude for painting. Born on February 18, 1892, he grew up in the coastal town of Otaru in the prefecture of Hokkaido, the second largest and northernmost island of Japan. At five years old, Hirasawa joined the art club of Otaru Junior High School, where according to rumor he soon surpassed his teacher as an artist.
Landscape became Hirasawa’s specialty, as did the medium of tempera, whereby the painter mixes colored pigments with egg yolk. It’s unknown why he gravitated toward tempera, but it may have to do with contemporary thinking about painting in Japan. In Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting, Chelsea Foxwell chronicles the rise of nihonga, a decidedly Japanese variety of painting that sought to distinguish itself from other national traditions. The movement got going toward the tail end of the nineteenth century, around the time of Hirasawa’s birth. Creators of nihonga resisted oil painting—one of several alternatives to tempera—because they saw it as a Western practice. Keen to nurture the nihonga school, the Japanese government even cut funding for artists working in oil paints. Perhaps the nationalist project of nihonga encouraged Hirasawa’s preference for tempera rather than oils. (He also liked to work in watercolor.) Whatever the case, I wanted to bring nihonga up because it fits into an international trend we touched on earlier this season. In our episode about David Alfaro Siqueiros, we talked about a similar impulse in Mexico, where artists were striving to develop a uniquely Mexican art around the time of the Revolution (1910-20).
At any rate, Hirasawa drew inspiration from the people and places of Hokkaido. Indeed, the island provided him with subject matter that won him early accolades. In 1915, aged twenty-two, he painted the picture, Ainu Drying Kelp. Dominated by cold, unwholesome blue-grays, it depicts a rocky riverbank, a farmhouse and hillocks in the distance. In the foreground, an elderly woman with long dark hair, a member of the indigenous Ainu population, hoists a clump of inky kelp out of the water, her countenance gnarled with age and strain. The picture took a prize at the prestigious Nika Art Exhibition in Tokyo, marking Hirasawa as an up-and-coming painter.
Before long, Hirasawa had relocated to the Japanese capital, where he lectured at the Tokyo Art Academy and supplemented his income with commissions. Happily married, he also raised a family.
Then came the outbreak of World War II followed by Japan’s surrender. Hirasawa along with the rest of his compatriots saw their homeland decimated.
By war’s end, the Allied forces had turned the land of the rising sun into a moonscape of rubble and ash. Their bombs leveled sixty-six major cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, annihilating about forty percent of those areas. In the words of Russel Brines, the first foreign journalist to set foot in Tokyo after the conflict, “Everything had been flattened . . . Only thumbs stood up from the flatlands—the chimneys of bathhouses, heavy house safes or an occasional stout building with heavy iron shutters.”
The devastation led to widespread homelessness, poverty, and disease. An estimated nine million Japanese ended up without a home. In major cities, families sought shelter in tumble-down shacks or on subway platforms. Those with steady jobs slept in offices or schoolrooms. They were lucky to have work. Unemployment was rampant, with many forced to survive on crime. Despair bred criminality, which in turn bred more despair. After an unidentified thief stole baby clothes from a pregnant woman, she placed a notice in the newspaper, imploring the culprit to return them because she couldn’t afford replacements. Hunger reigned, giving rise to a black market where merchants sold ramen and other edibles. Infectious diseases flourished as well. From 1945 to 1948, more than 650,000 are known to have contracted dysentery, cholera, typhoid fever and a host of other maladies. Official records from these years put the death toll at 99,654.
Ironically enough, relief would come from the country’s destroyers. The fighting gave way to the American occupation, with more than 350,000 U.S. soldiers landing in Japan by December 1945. General Douglas MacArthur served as their leader under the title of Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, SCAP for short. He set up his headquarters in Tokyo’s financial district, oddly untouched by the blankets of firebombs. Uniformed servicemen and jeeps filled its streets, and soon it gained the nickname of “Little America.” The Occupation introduced a number of measures to improve living conditions, increasing the food supply and redistributing land to laborers’ advantage. It also remade Japan’s political system, transmuting the dictatorship of Emperor Hirohito into a democracy. The government authored a new constitution with input from the U.S. Though widely praised, some of MacArthur’s initiatives were not without criticism. For instance, he bestowed immunity on Emperor Hirohito, concerned that holding him accountable for war crimes would cause unrest and hinder recovery. It wouldn’t be the last time MacArthur protected alleged war criminals.
It would take time for Japan to revive. In 1948, women were still scavenging for firewood and waiting in line to buy groceries for hours. In February of that year, a housewife spoke for many formerly middle-class women when she complained bitterly of the indignity of standing in queues with “dusty, dry, messy hair, and torn monpe, and dirty, half-rotten blouses . . . like animal-people made of mud.” In 1949, starvation persisted despite the reinvigorated food network. One bleak news item reported that “only” nine homeless people had died of hunger in a Tokyo train station that winter. The number had dropped from more than 100 the previous three winters. According to John W. Dower, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of post-war Japan, Embracing Defeat, “For millions of blue-collar and white-collar families, life—mere daily survival—did not begin to regain a semblance of normality until 1949 or later.”
Hirasawa spent the war years in Hokkaido, where he practiced his craft. As far as I know, Hirasawa never painted the effects of modern warfare, the wastelands left by the Allied Forces. Yet it’s hard not to look at some of his work from this period and think about the destruction. Take his picture, Ishikari Plain. Finished in 1947, it shows a vast grassland in the west of Hokkaido, buried under snow, stretching into the distance until it touches the gray sky. What look like furrows streak across the wilderness—maybe tracks left by the homesteaders who dwell in the huts nearby. A tree with a bendy trunk and branches—it might be a maple—stands to the left, spotted with frost. Without a soul in sight, the vista is one of piquant desolation, lonely and hauntingly beautiful all at once. Though apparently unmarred by bombing, the unpeopled plain nonetheless evokes cities wiped away by the war.
The economic depression hit Hirasawa hard. He was painting, but his work wasn’t selling. Few could afford—or desired—to buy art in post-war Japan. Simply put, he had entered dire straits even before he got embroiled in the Teigin incident.
The Teigin Incident
It was just past three in the afternoon when a knock came at the side entrance to the Teikoku bank. It closed at that hour, and employees were in the middle of their end-of-day duties. Hearing the unexpected rapping at the door, the recently hired Yoshiko Akuzawa left her desk to see who it was. Heavy rainfall had turned to a wintery mix that morning, slicking the sidewalks with sleet, snow, and mud. By now, it was raining again—not as hard as before, but nobody would want to be kept waiting outside for long. She opened the door to a good-looking man with a pale complexion, an olive-drab bag slung over one shoulder. Later, Akuzawa would put him in his late forties, though he might have been older. He had two brown specks on his left cheek, the kind she had noticed on elderly men before. The stranger evidently worked for the government. He wore a neat uniform with an armband bearing the official insignia of the Metropolitan Office, the City Hall of Tokyo. According to Japanese custom, he handed her a business card, which identified him as Jirō Yamaguchi, MD. The doctor projected an air of authority—of not just that but professionalism, trustworthiness.
He had come on urgent business, Dr. Yamaguchi informed her, asking to speak with the manager post haste. Nodding her head, Akuzawa told him to step around to the front door, where she met him a moment later. After passing through the sliding wood panels, Dr. Yamaguchi removed a pair of burnt-orange boots, curiously clean given the muck on the streets, and pulled on slippers that Akuzawa fetched for him. She showed him to Mr. Yoshida, the assistant manager (Mr. Ushiyama, the manager, went home early that day), and left the two alone. Not wanting to cause a panic, Dr. Yamaguchi related the alarming news in a low voice. The authorities have traced a number of dysentery cases back to a well about fifteen minutes away from the bank. Upon diagnosing a local with the disease, doctors reconstructed his movements that day. He had stopped by the bank to make a deposit, endangering the employees. In light of this information, Yoshida might have worried about his superior, Ushiyama. After all, he had clocked out an hour or so ago complaining of stomach pains. It was Dr. Yamaguchi’s charge to inoculate the bankers and disinfect all items that were handled that day—receipts, account books, safes, all of it. Nobody could leave until he finished. These were the orders of one Lieutenant Parker of the American occupation. Parker himself would stop by presently to verify that the doctor had completed his assignment, after which everybody was free to go.
Yoshida appreciated the gravity of the situation. In a few minutes’ time, the bank employees, twelve in total, were gathered around his desk. Joining them were four others: Mr. Takizawa, the Teikoku custodian, his wife, and their children, a nineteen-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son, all of whom resided in an annex at the bank. Arrayed on a tray were sixteen teacups, one for every one of them. Reaching into his bag, Dr. Yamaguchi produced two bottles containing solutions, their labels in English—one read “First Drug,” the other “Second Drug.” These were oral serums developed with the aid of the American occupation, the physician explained, and the medicine granted immunity to dysentery.
Grabbing a pipette, Dr. Yamaguchi released a few drops of the “First Drug” into each of the teacups. Everybody took one, awaiting further instructions. They must drink the serum with the utmost care, the doctor warned, as it could harm their gums and tooth enamel. Demonstrating the proper method, Dr. Yamaguchi dipped the pipette into the liquid, squeezing up a draught, and dripped it onto his tongue, positioned above his front teeth and against his lower lip. He then titled back his head and swallowed. After the first dose, he explained, they would have to wait exactly one minute before taking the second. The health care official eyed his wristwatch and gave a signal. They raised their teacups and ingested the drug.
Next, they waited. Thinking out loud, Yoshida remarked that the liquid tasted like gin. Each of them had taken no more than a few drops, hardly enough to swallow. Another employee, a Mr. Tanaka, worried that he hadn’t gotten his down. A moment later, a twenty-three-year-old clerk named Akiyama asked if she could gargle some water. The back of her throat was starting to prickle. Under no circumstances, the doctor replied. For the prophylactic to work, they would have to wait a full sixty seconds after taking the Second Drug before they could drink anything. With these words, Dr. Yamaguchi collected their teacups and poured a generous portion of the next medicine into each of them. Again, everybody emptied their cups. This time, the liquid flowed right down. Tanaka relaxed, now more confident the inoculation would succeed. Sixty seconds more, and the procedure was over.
Sometime after 3 p.m., police responded to a call from the Shinamachi district. Upon their arrival, they found a crowd gawking at a banker by the name of Masako Murata, dressed in her blue uniform and senseless on the street. A few minutes earlier, two pedestrians had spotted her crawling on all fours through the slush, barely conscious and raving about an emergency. Aware that she worked at the Teikoku bank, officers proceeded there while an ambulance rushed Murata to the Catholic International Hospital. The lawmen reeled at what awaited them. Ten of the men, women, and children inside were already dead. As they combed over the crime scene, five of the bankers were found to be alive and conveyed to ambulances parked outside, amid a mass of rubberneckers. Add Murata, discovered on the street, to that number and you have a total of six victims still living when law enforcement showed up. Two of these six perished, but four recovered at the hospital. It was thanks to these survivors that police were able to reconstruct these events.
Two Mysterious Killers
The Teigin incident confronted authorities with two mysterious killers: the poisoner and his poison.
First, for the poison. Three major questions puzzled the police. Number one: what was it? Preliminary autopsies proved inconclusive, but medical examiners strongly suspected a cyanide compound as the cause of death. Two would emerge as likely culprits with time: potassium cyanide and acetone cyanide. As far as I can tell, law enforcement prioritized potassium cyanide in their inquiry, but hang onto the name of acetone cyanide because it will come back.
Number two: was the poison in the First Drug or the Second? I’ve turned up conflicting answers. Some believe the First Drug contained the lethal substance while the Second was harmless. Others argue the reverse. Still others make the case for a binary agent that only kicked in when both drugs mixed inside the victims.
Number three: how did the killer walk away uninjured if he also took the “medicine”? Police came up with a plausible explanation. Dr. Yamaguchi added oil to the solution, which floated above the poison. The murdering thief drew his portion from the surface, swallowing no more than a few drops of oil. When serving the bankers and the custodian’s family members, he dipped his pipette to the bottom of the concoction, sucking the deadly elixir into the syringe.
Quite apart from how and with what the killer poisoned his victims, police were stumped as to why he did it. At first glance, robbery seemed the obvious motive—the murderer fled the scene with a sizable sum. Yet that theory was shaky. Heaped in plain sight on top of desks was approximately 300,000 yen, nearly twice the amount the killer purloined. If it was money he wanted, why had he left so much of it behind? What made the riddle even stranger was that bank robberies were exceedingly rare in Japan. One commentator even went so far as to call them a “Western crime.”
Police would just have to catch the guy and make him explain himself. At this point, the authorities knew virtually nothing about his identity. However, they remained confident in one assumption: they were hunting a professional killer, as cutthroat as they come. He had walked into a bank and talked sixteen people into swallowing cyanide, one of his victims an eight-year-old boy. This was a criminal of extraordinary cunning, with specialized knowledge of poisonous substances.
After a quick break, we’ll hear how the police investigation put them on the trail of Sadamichi Hirasawa.
The Name Game
Among the authorities’ top priorities was to establish what the Teikoku assassin looked like. To this end, investigators made police history by consulting the survivors and constructing Japan’s first-ever composite sketch of a perpetrator. The illustration ran in newspapers across the nation, prompting readers to blow up the phonelines with tips. It was incumbent on police to follow up on them, yet none brought them closer to nabbing the culprit.
Police had one major clue to go on. The killer left the business card identifying him as Dr. Jirō Yamaguchi at the crime scene. Was the killer so brazen—and foolish—as to announce his identity like that? It appeared not. Law enforcement contacted the Welfare Ministry to see if it had employed a Jirō Yamaguchi and found that it had. Ultimately, however, the lead took investigators to a dead end.
Yet quite unexpectedly, another business card sent them in a different direction. Not long after the mass killing, a tipster phoned with new information. The caller identified himself as the manager of the Ebara branch of the Yasuda Bank in Tokyo. The Teigin incident reminded him of a curious occurrence in his own workplace. Last November, a doctor showed up, unannounced, alerting him and his staff to an outbreak of typhoid in the neighborhood. Claiming affiliation with the Occupation, the medical professional explained that he was there to inoculate the bankers against infection. Convinced of the urgency, the manager summoned his colleagues to undergo the procedure, at which point the doctor stepped out of the building to retrieve equipment from his jeep. He then reappeared and handed out medicine. After everybody gulped it down, the physician left, and the bankers went about their business. Nothing happened. In time, the authorities would come to view this unforeseen inoculation as a dress rehearsal for the Teigin incident, allowing the perpetrator to gauge whether he could dupe his victims into poisoning themselves. If this were the case, this testimony revealed another layer of planning that went into the scheme. Yet the manager had details of more immediate use, too. Like the Teigin menace, the health care official proffered a name card at the beginning of the interaction. However, it bore a name other than Jirō Yamaguchi. Still on the phone, the informant reached for the business card the doctor had given him, which identified the owner as Shigeru Matsui, MD. The police had a new lead.
This clue proved more fruitful than the first. Law enforcement located this Dr. Matsui and interrogated him. At first, the interview must have seemed a disappointment. Dr. Matsui furnished the authorities with a cast-iron alibi, ruling him out as the culprit. However, he offered further insights that advanced the investigation. A meticulous—some would say obsessive—recordkeeper, Dr. Matsui tracked the movement of his business cards with uncommon exactitude, making a note of whenever he exchanged one. Thanks to Dr. Matsui’s system, he could assure police that he had parted with a total of 593 business cards, only 100 of which matched the slip of paper carried by the Teikoku killer. The medical professional had logged the names of all 100 recipients as well as the date of each exchange and passed this information onto law enforcement. Having struck the name of Dr. Shigeru Matsui from the suspect list, detectives thus added another 100.
Trailing and Trying Hirasawa
Over the course of six grueling months, police whittled down the 100 viable suspects to just fourteen. Among these names was that of acclaimed painter Sadamichi Hirasawa.
He didn’t look altogether improbable as a suspect. To begin with, he had a history of financial crimes. On four separate occasions, the artist tried to deposit fraudulent checks in Tokyo banks, scribbling false names and addresses on the back of them. Later in the investigation, two former colleagues of Hirasawa’s came forward with another series of eyebrow-raising allegations. According to them, the painter had performed unlawful abortions on at least ten women. Needless to say, however, these crimes paled in comparison to the Teigin poisonings and none of it connected him to the mass murder.
As investigators dug deeper, they uncovered circumstantial evidence that raised suspicions. For starters, Hirasawa lacked a credible alibi. Though living in Hokkaido, Hirasawa had visited Tokyo the day of the Teigin incident and claimed to have been taking a stroll at the time of the crime—a story neither he nor anybody else could prove. Furthermore, Hirasawa could not produce Dr. Matsui’s business card—he reasoned that he lost it the previous summer when a pickpocket ran off with his wallet, the name card inside. On September 10, moreover, police discovered that Hirasawa deposited approximately 130,000 yen in the immediate aftermath of the Teigin robbery. This sum fell short of the stolen 160,000 yen, but it was large enough to look suspicious. Iffiest of all, Hirasawa refused to disclose the source of this windfall despite repeated questioning. To this day, the origin of these funds remains a mystery, though one explanation has received a lot of attention. More on that later.
As authorities began to take Hirasawa more seriously as a suspect, they ran headlong into the inevitable question: Why, of all people, would a landscape painter have access to potassium cyanide and know how to kill with it? On September 14, police ventured an answer: Like many other artists, Hirasawa mixed the compound with copper to create a light-green pigment. While employing this technique, moreover, Hirasawa made use of pipettes similar to the one described by the survivors of the slayings. It was through his métier as a painter, the thinking went, that Hirasawa could master the skills of a poisoner.
Finally, the police pounced. They took Hirasawa into custody for prolonged interrogation. The painter appears to have undergone torture. His mistreatment at the hands of the authorities drove him to suicidal despair. Two days into the grilling, Hirasawa filched a glass pen and slashed his own wrist and smeared the word “innocent” in bloody characters on the wall. A guard discovered him bleeding out and transferred him to the medical ward, saving his life. Hirasawa attempted suicide twice more in detention. On September 27, three days after his final attempt, the painter broke down and confessed to the crimes. Journalists splashed the admission of guilt across headlines, to the astonishment of a nation that still demanded justice for the Teikoku mass killing. Also newsworthy were the events of the following month, two days before Hirasawa was slated to stand trial: he recanted his confession.
The prosecution had precious little on Hirasawa. The state consulted eleven witnesses, two of whom positively identified the painter as the perpetrator. At the same time, six had testified beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hirasawa was not the murderous Dr. Yamaguchi. The case against Hirasawa depended almost entirely to his confession. In 1948, he insisted that he made it for no reason other than to end his torment at the hands of the police: “The report states that there is no doubt I’m the criminal. But I didn’t commit the crime. You can imagine why I would want to end the interrogation by confessing, even though I am not a criminal.”
Still, the defense failed. On July 25, 1950, more than two years after the Teigin incident, the court found Sadamichi Hirasawa guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging. Three years later, after a fierce appeals process, the Japanese Supreme Court upheld this ruling.
Family Lost and Gained
Hirasawa’s conviction shattered his reputation and drove away his family. His paintings became untouchable overnight. Since then, many have gone missing or had the artist’s signature expunged. By virtue of their association with the convicted mass murderer, his wife and daughters fell under ceaseless public scrutiny. An undated photograph shows Hirasawa’s Tokyo residence in black and white, a mob of sight-seers congregating outside. Vandals threw rocks at the wooden edifice while voyeurs peeped through openings in the walls. Unable to endure the notoriety any longer, Hirasawa’s wife filed for divorce in 1955, while his children distanced themselves by ever greater degrees. The painter’s firstborn daughter did try to visit her incarcerated father, her face covered with a blanket to conceal her identity, but journalists swarmed her outside the prison, making it impossible for her to enter. She went home mortified and never attempted to see him again. She would hide her true parentage for years to come. Under the condition of anonymity, she agreed to an interview with the makers of A Victim of Misjudgment, a 2002 documentary about Hirasawa’s painting and imprisonment. You can watch it on YouTube, and there’s a link in the show notes. All the paintings I talk about in this episode can be seen in this film. By middle-age, she explains, she had shown skill as an artist yet suppressed how she came by it: “Even if everyone says I’m good at sketching and coloring, I can’t possibly tell them it’s because of my father.”
The estrangement was heartbreaking for Hirasawa. He hints at the pain of it in A Girl in the Mist, which he painted in prison more than ten years after his confinement. The picture shows feminine facial features against a grayish-white background—rosy lips, the point of a nose, deep, dark eyes beneath gently curving eyelashes. They belong to Hirasawa’s eldest daughter, and they’re hazy for a reason. After a decade without contact, Hirasawa could barely recall the shape of her face.
Yet if Hirasawa lost his wife and daughters, he gained a son. Within a decade of his imprisonment, a number of intellectuals professed his innocence and took it upon themselves to secure his release. In 1961, the Society to Save Sadamichi Hirasawa formed. One of its key members, the journalist Tatsuro Morikawa, took up Hirasawa’s cause because the painter’s treatment reminded him of the miserable fate that befell his father, a language professor killed without trial by Chinese Communists in the wake of World War II. Tatsuro’s son, Takehiko, inherited his father’s zeal for proving Hirasawa’s innocence and made it his life’s work to see the painter exonerated. In 1982, on the day of Takehiko’s twenty-third birthday, he legally became Sadamichi’s adopted son, assuming his surname. This move sent a clear symbolic message; it signified Takehiko’s enduring commitment to Sadamichi’s cause. At the same time, it served a purely pragmatic function: only family members could petition for retrials, and Sadamichi’s biological relations wanted nothing to do with him.
The Japanese courts would not grant a retrial willy-nilly. If Takehiko wanted one, he would have to dig up compelling new evidence for Sadamichi’s defense. He would never corroborate the painter’s alibi, but what if he could explain where all that money in his bank account came from? Proving that he earned it by means other than theft might encourage the courts to reexamine the case. Much of Takehiko’s labor has gone into unraveling this mystery, and he and his supporters have put forward a tantalizing theory. Unable to support himself by selling landscapes after the war, Sadamichi resorted to a centuries-old style of upmarket erotica known as shunga.
A subset of the ukiyo-e tradition, shunga reached its apogee in the Edo period (1603-1867), during which time advances in printing technology increased its distribution. At times pretty tame and at others X-rated in its depiction of sex, shunga appeared in the form of standalone prints and books, frequently accompanied by bawdy poems and stories. Unlike modern pornography, Edo-period shunga was widely available and peddled in public without a hint of embarrassment. First- and second-hand booksellers stocked it, friends and neighbors traded it, and door-to-door libraries lent it out. As art historian Hiyakawa Montra has shown, men and women of all ages and classes enjoyed a peek at this genre. Offering more than sexual gratification, shunga acted as a good luck charm and was often given as a gift for this reason. According to tradition, it boosted newlywed brides’ fertility, protected merchants’ wares from fire, and guaranteed warriors’ safety in battle. Many of the Edo period’s most acclaimed painters trafficked in shunga because—go figure—it brought in more money than most other genres. I’ve posted a few examples of shunga on the Art of Crime website, so go have a look.
Despite the long-lived popularity of shunga in Edo Japan, public opinion turned against it in the Meiji period (1868-1912). According to art historian Ishigami Aki, Japan imported an array of Western values throughout these years, often in the name of modernization, sexual modesty (i.e. prudery) included. The last three decades of the nineteenth century saw the targeted suppression of shunga and similar entertainments. For instance, the 1872 Ordinance Relating to Public Morals forbade the sale or purchase of shunga as well as sex toys. All the same, purveyors of these forbidden pleasures exploited loopholes. It was illegal to sell shunga, yes, but the law remained silent on letting readers borrow it. In an 1876 newspaper article cited by Aki, the author relates how he chastised a man for hawking shunga at a public bathhouse—just some light reading for customers to savor as they sipped their cherry tea. “But I’m not selling them,” the man retorted. “I’m lending them.” Crackdowns grew wilier, public outrage more heated. Undercover police officers busted shunga vendors, while moral crusaders quite literally set fire to it. By the first or second decade of the 1900s, the selling and buying of shunga bore a stigma. But then, a stigma alone has never put a stop to illicit activity.
In 1998, Takehiko Hirasawa unearthed a work of shunga that he believed his adoptive father had painted and furthermore hoped would warrant a retrial—a picture scroll titled Twelve Months of Secret Pleasures. Discovered in Sadamichi’s hometown of Otaru, it depicts a dozen couples, one for every month, getting frisky in a variety of ways, sometimes outdoors. You only catch glimpses of it in A Victim of Misjudgment, but based on what you can see, Twelve Months appears to fall on the less explicit side of the shunga spectrum. The couples haven’t disrobed, but take one look at the lust in their eyes and you know which direction things are headed.
To Takehiko’s mind, his adoptive father could have made bank on Twelve Months. By the mid-1900s, shunga remained frowned-upon though sought-after by certain individuals. If, say, a well-heeled businessman had a mind to buy a choice specimen, he might have shelled out as much as 100,000 yen for a top artist to create it. If Hirasawa painted and sold Twelve Months around the time of the Teigin incident, the transaction would explain the unexplained jackpot he hit. It would also account for why Sadamichi stayed mum about it. To admit to peddling shunga would have killed his career, would have amounted to what Takehiko calls “an artistic death.”
There are two major weaknesses to Takehiko’s conjecture. First, maybe it’s just me, but it seems like a stretch to suggest that outing himself as a shunga monger would have worried him than getting convicted of mass homicide. Second, the creator of Twelve Months left it unsigned, evidently not wanting his name on shunga. So Takehiko consulted art critic Yoshie Yoshida to see whether he thought it had come from Sadamichi’s brush. Of particular interest to Yoshida was the first picture on the scroll, painted in tempera, Sadamichi’s preferred medium. It depicts lovers beneath plum and pine trees. Yoshida is of the opinion that Sadamichi did paint Twelve Months, and the proof is in the plums. Comparing Twelve Months to a known Hirasawa painting, Yoshida highlights a remarkable similarity between the shape and color of the fruits in both pictures—black and red orbs, the former on top of the latter. As valuable as Takehiko viewed this insight, it wouldn’t lead to a retrial.
Mad Science in Manchuria
If Sadamichi Hirasawa didn’t author the Teikoku catastrophe, then who did? To my knowledge, Takehiko and company have never named a possible perpetrator, but they have advanced theories about his background. Many suspect a military connection. This would explain not only the skill with which the murderer struck but also the poison he used for the attack. Those in Takehiko’s camp repudiate the idea that the killer used potassium cyanide—partly because its effects differ from those of the toxin administered at the bank. They instead maintain that the murderer made use of acetone cyanide, far harder to come by than the easily acquired potassium cyanide though still obtainable by military personnel. They further posit that members of the Japanese Imperial Army experimented with this compound—perhaps with an eye toward future assassinations—at an infamous outfit known as Unit 731.
Codenamed The Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department in official records, Unit 731 actually spread disease and death, researching the effectiveness of biological warfare. It ran its operations on a six-square-kilometer patch of land in Manchuria, surrounded by a trench plus a ten-foot wall. The authorities upheld a strict no-fly zone around the facility, applicable even to Japanese aircraft. The regiment targeted Chinese civilians and military officials while conducting its experiments. In a new mutation of the air raid, low-flying planes dropped fleas infected with plague over the cities of Ningbo and Changde. Far from purifying water in the region, members of Unit 731 contaminated reservoirs and wells with typhoid and paratyphoid, taking careful notes on the ensuing outbreaks. Other tests explored the pathology of cholera, smallpox, botulism, and other illnesses. These experiments reportedly claimed thousands of lives.
Yet Unit 731’s research extended beyond bioweaponry. When its members weren’t sowing death among the inhabitants of neighboring localities, they were carrying out experiments in their own facilities, using Chinese—and sometimes Soviet—prisoners of war as their unwilling test subjects. To study the character of shrapnel wounds, examiners tied captives, unprotected, to stakes in the ground at varying distances from a detonation site, where they set off grenades and other explosives. Surgeons amputated limbs, often without anesthesia, to study the effects of blood loss. Other victims were strapped into centrifuges and spun until ded.
The depravity of Unit 731’s experimentations remained a secret to most of the public until after the end of the American occupation. This is no coincidence since the U.S. military went out of its way to conceal these atrocities. In 1947, General Douglas MacArthur granted immunity to General Shiro Ishii, head of Unit 731, and his band of sadistic physicians, shielding them from almost certain prosecution as war criminals. Of course, the Supreme Commander expected something in return: exclusive access to the results of Unit 731’s experiments. In MacArthur’s estimation, the atrocities in Manchuria could have yielded insights that would benefit the U.S. military. What was more, MacArthur intended to keep the research from falling into the hands of other wartime powers, especially the Soviets. Not until the early-to-mid 1950s did Japan start to learn about the doings of Unit 731.
Amid these revelations, Hirasawa’s supporters put forward a new theory about the Teigin incident. It was their contention that a graduate of Unit 731 had committed the killings. Such an individual would have had the toxicological know-how plus the manipulative craftiness to mastermind and execute the robbery-murder. Those who buy this explanation today are quick to point out that General Shiro Ishii, chief of Unit 731, expressed this view shortly after the Teigin incident. As William Triplett reveals in his 1985 book about the case, Flowering of the Bamboo, Japanese prosecutor Hajine Takagei interviewed Ishii in April 1948, checking up on a potential military link to the homicides. The general claimed that the Teikoku fiend might have been “one of my men.” Later, in July, Ishii added, “It’s definitely related to the army. I think so myself.”
The notion of ties between the Teigin incident and the Manchurian war crimes is not without sense. Unit 731 certainly trained participants in the handling of lethal substances, perhaps even preparing them to commit assassinations. As several writers have noted, it administered so-called “poison schools,” in which the “pupils” studied the use of various toxins. Moreover, several of the atrocities committed by Unit 731 and its sister squadron, Unit 1644, involve medical duplicity in ways that resemble the Teigin incident. As historian Sheldon Harris documents in his book, Factories of Death, prisoners at Unit 1644’s Nanking facilities were taken daily to a third-floor laboratory. Next they were placed in beds and told by an interpreter not to worry. Doctors filed in wearing white gowns, and the translator explained they were going “to give you medicine to heal your bodies.” Instead, the physicians injected each captive with a toxin selected from a vast collection including hydrogen cyanide, cobra venom, and even crystallized pufferfish poison. Then the experimenters settled down and observed the effects. Similar deception unfolded at Unit 731, where doctors infected their victims with such diseases as dysentery, syphilis, and gonorrhea, under the pretense of administering vaccines. Despite these parallels, the Unit 731 connection remains unproven.
Martyrdom Behind Bars
In the end, Sadamichi Hirasawa spent thirty-two years as a condemned criminal. Thirty-three consecutive ministers refused to order his execution, under the assumption that he could win a retrial. Hirasawa’s was an existence of never-ending uncertainty. He awakened every day without knowing whether he would live to see the next—prison officials typically notified death-row inmates of their hanging about an hour before it took place so as far as he knew, the grim announcement could have come at any moment. The anguish he must have felt over his long-deferred doom notwithstanding, Hirasawa maintained his composure vis-à-vis other death-row inmates. Former corrections officer Hiroyuki Mutaguchi recalled, “The others often yelled or jumped out of the bed at night. There were more than 50 of them. They often went crazy the day they killed someone or as the day of their death sentence approached. Hirasawa’s attitude didn’t change at all.” The painter died of pneumonia in a prison hospital on May 10, 1987, aged ninety-five.
Even so, Takehiko sought to clear his adoptive father’s name in court. He submitted nineteen applications for a retrial, many of them posthumous, all of which Japan’s High Court rejected, citing a lack of significant new evidence. Writing for the Far Eastern Economic Review in 2004, Tim Hornvak voiced the sentiment of many by portraying Takehiko as undeniably admirable and yet quixotic. “Takehiko Hirasawa is a patient man,” Hornvak begins, only to characterize him a line or two later as “an unemployed crusader in an apparently endless and mostly forgotten court battle.” In 2013, Takehiko died alone at his Tokyo home, never having completed his quest for justice.
Foiled as he was on so many fronts, Takehiko’s campaigning raised awareness of Sadamichi’s conviction, helping to keep him and—his painting—in the public eye. He recovered lost Hirasawa artworks and helped organize exhibitions. Thanks to his unflagging efforts, moreover, the painter’s case cropped up from time to time in the news, stoking debate about the death penalty in general and the practice of hanging capital offenders in particular. Also owing in part to Takehiko’s labors, many—maybe most—commentators now believe Sadamichi Hirasawa to have been innocent.
Judging from his art, Hirasawa saw a political significance to his fate. By the time of his death, he had painted more than 1,300 pictures behind bars, including 100 views of Mt. Fuji. On his eighty-eighth birthday, Hirasawa produced a self-portrait—a rarity in his oeuvre. Under normal circumstances, he would have set up his easel and canvas in front of a mirror. Yet prisoners were forbidden to keep looking-glasses in their cells. Instead, he worked from his reflection in his window, faintly visible after sundown. In the self-portrait, a slender Hirasawa wears a red cap and a pair of round spectacles in front of a blank background, a snowy white beard reaching from his chin to his chest. On its own, his facial expression is difficult to interpret—is it brooding or just pensive? An inscription sheds light on what he’s contemplating and how he feels about it: “I am filled with gratitude on my eighty-eighth birthday as I reflect on my life, devoted to the cause of justice.”