Death of Teigin Bank killer's son likely to end 65-year-old legal battle
Up to the March 20, 1995 gassing of the Tokyo subways by members of the AUM Supreme Truth religious cult, the largest mass-murder in Japan’s postwar history occurred in January 1948, when a man posing as a public health official walked into a branch of the Teigin Bank in Shiinamachi, Toshima Ward of Tokyo, just after closing time.
Speaking to the assembled bank employees and members of the caretaker’s family, including two children, he explained that dysentery had broken out in a nearby well, and that he had come to dispense a preventative antidote. Because the strong chemical could damage the enamel on their teeth, he instructed them, they should swallow the preparation in one gulp. He demonstrated on himself by using an eyedropper, using medication taken from the same bottle.
After dispensing the preparation to the 16 people, he guided them to raise their teacups and swallow the preparation in unison. The “antidote” turned out to be a deadly poison, and 10 people were dead within minutes. Two more died afterwards in the hospital. Four survived.
The killer stole 160,000 yen in cash (at that time a considerable sum) and a check and fled, inexplicably leaving behind a larger amount of cash.
Several months later, Tokyo detectives, tracing the recipients of the same business card that the spurious health official had presented to the bank manager, narrowed down their search to a 57-year-old tempera artist from Otaru, Hokkaido, named Sadamichi Hirasawa, who had been in Tokyo at that time.
After some two months of grilling by police, Hirasawa finally confessed to the crime. Although he recanted his confession during the trial, he was sentenced to death. But doubts surfaced over the validity of his confession, and over several decades no Minister of Justice was willing to sign off on an order for Hirasawa’s execution. The elderly painter from Otaru became Japan’s longest occupant of death row, finally passing away in May 1987 at age 95.
Proponents of Hirasawa’s innocence were convinced that the Teigin Bank killer must have had a medical background with specialized knowledge of poisons that Hirasawa, an artist, could have not possibly known. Some suspected he had perhaps belonged to Unit 731, the notorious Japanese army chemical and biological warfare unit based near Harbin, Manchuria.
The defense also argued that an autopsy of Hirasawa’s brain determined he have suffered from Korsakoff’s psychosis, a neurological disorder characterized by amnesia and confabulation—behavior the police who questioned him are likely to have mistaken for lying.
The Hirasawa case has remained on the books because the Japanese legal system enables a family member to appeal a verdict even after the convicted person has died. To keep the hopes for exoneration alive, one of Hirasawa’s most fervent supporters, a journalist named Tetsuro Morikawa, arranged for Hirasawa to adopt his then-22-year-old son Takehiko. The court up to now has turned down requests for a retrial 18 times, and a decision on the 19th request was expected to be handed down based on what was claimed to be new evidence in the case.
Last April, reports Shukan Shincho (Oct 17), Takehiko was taken to the hospital after ingesting two bottles of red wine together with more than 200 antidepressant and sleeping tablets. It was his fifth known suicide attempt.
On the night of Oct 1, Takehiko was found dead in an old house in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, where he had been living alone. He was 54. The police were summoned after the office manager of the Hirasawa support group, Katsuto Harabuchi, called on the house after an acquaintance told him he’d been unable to contact Takehiko for nearly one month.
“For the past 20 or so years, I heard Takehiko was working part-time, but was never able to hold onto a steady job,” said a former member of the support group. “I heard he also did some writing and received royalties from his late father’s works, but things were never comfortable for him.”
Takehiko suffered from diabetes and bipolar disorder. At the end of last year his mother, who had also been involved in the support group, passed away. After a suicide attempt earlier this year, Takehiko told a Shukan Shincho reporter he’d been living on a monthly welfare allotment of 109,000 yen.
He nonetheless admitted that his attempting suicide while awaiting a response for his adopted father’s 19th appeal was “a betrayal of the attorneys and supporters,” adding, “As long as I’m alive, the case won’t be ended.”
With Takehiko gone, supporters of Hirasawa are resigning themselves that the court will pull the plug on any further consideration of a retrial for one of postwar Japan’s most notorious convicted mass murderers.