Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Books I'm Reading: Flowering of the Bamboo--A Bizarre Story of Murder and Cover-up in Post-War Tokyo (May 8, 2012)

It's well known that bamboos--the cicadas of the plant world--bloom only at long intervals and then die. Biologists believe this strategy works because such long periods precede production of seed that no animals evolve to rely on the seed as a regular food source. It was at first unclear to me why author William Triplett chose his title. Among the documents reproduced at the back of the book there is a secret memo that refers to an expected bamboo flowering in WWII China that might cause an acute temporary shortage of local building materials, but the memo is presented without comment and seems to have no direct relation to the case. I've come to see that the bizarre January 1948 Tokyo mass murder today known as the Teigin Jiken (or the Teikoku Bank Incident)--the subject of this engrossing book--is simply being likened to the rare event of a flowering of bamboo plants, but the  cryptic title, a single typo in the book's 240-some pages, and a rather amateurish jacket design that gives no indication of what the book is about, are minor complaints. I read Flowering of the Bamboo from cover to cover in a single afternoon, virtually without putting it down.

I have an advantage over most readers in this instance. Having lived in Tokyo for about a third of my life, I was already familiar with the Teigin Jiken. I knew that a man posing as a doctor had appeared at a Tokyo bank branch in the early years of the post-WWII US occupation of Japan just before closing time and told the 16 people he found there to drink "medicine" he dispensed from an eyedropper (purportedly a prophylactic against dysentery, which was rife at the time) and had them wash it down with tea in their dutifully assembled tea cups and that the medicine turned out to be a preparation of hydrogen cyanide (or Prussic acid, so called because it was first isolated from the pigment known as Prussian blue). I knew that it had killed 12 of the victims, more or less instantly. All had unquestioningly complied with the mysterious man's directions (the survivors explained that the man had worn an armband identifying him as from the Metropolitan Office of the City Hall of Tokyo, that he had presented a card declaring him to be a doctor affiliated with the Welfare Ministry, and that he had said he'd been sent by the US occupation forces). I knew that the man and some money disappeared from the scene and that he was never positively identified, but I didn't know the details of the case, nor had I heard much about it in many years.

It's the sort of case that will never die, until it's solved (which now seems unlikely), a story much like that of D. B. Cooper, the man who hijacked a Northwest Airlines jet on November 24, 1971 between Oregon and Seattle, extorted $200,000 from the airline and, on a second, later flight, strapped to the money and the parachutes he had demanded, stepped into the sky, never to be seen again. Cooper--or whatever his name really was--killed no one, but the two tales live on in much the same way. They are stories half-forgotten, but dormant and alive nevertheless, lurking in anthologies of famous unsolved crimes for some new reader to stumble upon, or waiting to be mentioned in brief news articles on important anniversaries.

Triplett had learned of the Tokyo incident when he read just such an article in the Columbus Dispatch in 1978, 30 years after the murders. That an article about the death row wait of the man probably wrongly arrested for the crime appeared in the May 8, 1985 edition of The New York Times and that today is May 8, 2012 is entirely coincidental (see "For Man on Death Row, Time is Hangman" by Clyde Haberman, New York Times, May 8, 1985, Late City Final Edition, Section A, Page 2, Column 3). Intrigued, Triplett began to investigate, eventually spending seven years working on the story and writing his book. The research took him to Japan and to Washington D.C., where he turned up new details about the incident through Freedom of Information Act requests at the National Archives.

It goes without saying that the Teigin Jiken was far more sinister than the D. B. Cooper hijacking, and the investigation that followed it and its consequences were rather different as well. While it's still unclear what happened to Cooper and no one was arrested in the hijacking case, an artist named Sadamichi Hirasawa was held in connection with the Teigin Jiken poisonings. Later convicted of them, he was sentenced to death by hanging in 1950, a verdict appealed but upheld in 1955. When Triplett's book appeared in 1985, 93-year-old Arisawa was still awaiting execution. He died in prison two years later, in 1987, at the age of 95, after 32 years of incarceration on death row, having been the longest-serving death row inmate anywhere in the world. The execution was never carried out--a strange thing, as Japan is unsentimental about capital punishment. Executions usually are swift, little publicized, and infrequently questioned, but even the authorities in this case were so unsure of the condemned man's guilt that no one would ever sign the final papers required to actually kill him.

Triplett's detective work led him to information buttressing the view that Hirasawa was framed for the murders, that he became a scapegoat for an Occupation police system badly in need of a face-saving conviction in a case that absorbed the attention of the entire country and became notorious worldwide. He suggests that Japan's media contributed by jumping to conclusions, by publishing sensational articles based on hearsay, and that blame for the murders had to lie with someone trained to use the tricky poison that killed the 12 victims in the bank on that cold January day in 1948. There appears to be much evidence supporting the view that the murderer was associated during the war with the notorious Unit 731, headed by one Shiro Ishii, a Lieutenant General--the same unit that is at the center of Shusaku Endo's well-known novel Umi to Dokuyaku [The Sea and Poison], the first book I ever read cover to cover in Japanese. Endo, a Christian, once spoke at the church in Tokyo where I (not a Christian) was married. I had him sign my copy. I told him that it was the first book I had ever read in Japanese in its entirety. He seemed impressed, but must have thought it a strange choice--although my choice was virtually meaningless; it was simply a novel of a length that I thought I could handle before I started into it. After the war, the US gave Ishii and all of the men that had worked in Unit 731 doing ghastly experiments on live prisoners complete immunity from war crimes prosecution in exchange for details of the work they had done. To publicly tie the Teigin Jiken murders to Unit 731 would have been an embarrassment for all involved. It was assiduously avoided. Hirasawa's existence was convenient for many people, although he had been linked to the crime by highly circumstantial evidence.

Triplett's argument is convincing. His supporting evidence seems to corroborate what many have suspected all along, but it leaves one question unanswered. Why? What was the motive of whoever it was that poisoned 16 people in a Tokyo bank one day, seemingly for no reason? While the bank was robbed, the killer left twice the amount of money he took sitting on tables, laid out for counting. Was the theater of that day designed, as some argue, simply to show contempt for mindless obedience to authority? All possible answers seem to have the same fault: none seems to truly explain such a coolly calculated and seemingly random act. We'll probably never know why the bamboo flowered that day.

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