Teigin Incident: How a painter was convicted for mass murder

Self-portrait by Sadamichi Hirasawa on the occasion of his 88th birthday
米寿 (beiju, 88 years old), a self-portrait by Sadamichi Hirasawa on the occasion of his 88th birthday

From Bloomberg comes this fascinating account of a well-known Japanese tempera painter, Sadamichi Hirasawa, who was convicted of mass murder during the American Occupation following World War II. It was called the Teigin Incident. As this short New York Times story on the occasion of Hirasawa’s death in 1987 recounts,

In the robbery, a man posing as a Government health worker entered a Teikoku Bank branch and told 16 employees that post-World War II occupation forces had ordered them to drink medicine because of an outbreak of dysentery. The workers obeyed, and, as they collapsed, the robber scooped up the equivalent of $600 and fled.

Twelve bank employees died. The drink was found to contain cyanide.

At the time, Hirasawa confessed but later claimed this was forced under torture. (As an aside, Japan has long had a problem with forced confessions.) At any rate, through various appeals and loopholes and indecision, he was never hanged for the crime and ended up spending 39 years in prison, 32 of them on death row. The NY Times article quoted above notes that at that time (1987) he had been on death row “longer than any other prisoner in the world.”

While the case is sensational no matter how you look at it, what caught my eye in the Bloomberg piece was the suspicion that someone from the infamous Unit 731 of the old Imperial Japanese Army might have been involved in the incident (called Teigin as the bank where it occurred was a branch of the Teikoku Ginko (Imperial Bank). This was written about in a book by William Triplett called Flowering of the Bamboo as well as in Mark Schreiber’s Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan.

According to this page (via Google Book Search) of Schreiber’s book, a “novel” by famed crime mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto that appeared in 1959 alleged that “a former member of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731 […] had been involved in the killings, but GHQ [the American occupying authorities] had given him a blanket amnesty in exchange for data on the experiments”.

Sadamichi Hirasawa being arrested in his hometown of Otaru (Hokkaido)
Sadamichi Hirasawa being arrested in his hometown of Otaru (Hokkaido), 1948

There is a rather large Japanese site that deals with the incident, from which the two images used in this post come from. (I believe this is the “Society to Save Hirasawa” website but I’m not sure). Even if you can’t read the site, the photos of Hirasawa, the crime scene, and the evidence introduced that are in the photo gallery are fascinating to cycle through (click on the first link in the left column, and then the “next” arrow after that). The site also features a small selection of Hirasawa’s paintings, the majority of which, according to the Bloomberg article, have been lost. There are more Hirasawa works pictured throughout the site but they are not organized in any way. Your best bet is to browse via this Goo image search. (More Hirasawa work can also be seen here.)

60 of those works are now traveling in Japan as part of an exhibition organized by Hirasawa’s adopted son, Takehiko, which is what occasioned the Bloomberg piece. Takehiko is the biological son of one of Hirasawa’s most ardent defenders, writer Tetsuro Morikawa, who arranged for Hirasawa to adopt his son partly in an effort to help with the appeals process (according to Schreiber) . Morikawa was the founder of the Society to Save Hirasawa, and he was well-known for his books on Japanese history (tantalizingly, one of his books deals in part with the Yakuza presence in Manchuria). It is yet another twist in a fascinating and tragic episode in post-war Japanese history.

According to the Bloomberg piece, the exhibition will take place in Otaru from October 3 – 8 (unfortunately, I couldn’t find a link), and there will also be a documentary about Hirasawa on Japan network TBS on September 30th.

2 Replies to “Teigin Incident: How a painter was convicted for mass murder”

  1. Guy-
    thanks for commenting and directing me towards these posts. (I changed the links to these short URL ones as the original URLs were messing up the formatting).

    I have to admit that I had not heard of Seicho Matsumoto and therefore didn’t mention him by name when I referenced the Schreiber book. (I will recitify that in the post). Thanks for bringing him to my attention. I see that there will be a Matsumoto book entitled Pro-Bono published by Vertical later this year. But I’d really love to read this non-fiction expose mentioned (Black Fog Over Japan). Very tantalizing. And I now have a good reason to finally watch my Criterion copy of The Bad Sleep Well, which has been sitting on my shelf unwatched for some time now….

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