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.

Carl Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944)

Sadakichi Hartmann, photographed by William M. Vander Weyde

Sadakichi Hartmann
Photographed by William M. Vander Weyde, 191?

One of the strangest and most original men of letters of the day — in the United States at all events — is Sadakichi Hartmann, the poet, art critic, and lecturer. He was born in the land of wistarias and chrysanthemums, and he sees life with that Japanese anarchy of perspective.

Vance Thompson, Paris Herald, September, 1906

Sadakichi Hartmann fried eggs with Walt Whitman, discussed poetry with Stephane Mallarme, and drank with John Barrymore, who described him as “a living freak… sired by Mephistopheles out of Madame Butterfly.” W.C. Fields said the critic was “a no-good bum.” But though Hartmann might lift your watch (he was an accomplished pickpocket), his opinion was not for sale.

Born in Japan to a German merchant and his Japanese wife in 1867, he was disowned at 14 and shipped to a Philadelphia great-uncle, an incident that, as Hartmann said, was “…not apt to foster filial piety.” Largely self-educated, he published his first newspaper articles as an adolescent. After meeting Whitman, he wrote an article for the New York Herald quoting the poet’s opinions of other writers. Whitman denounced him for misquotation; Hartmann responded by expanding the article to a pamphlet. At 23, he wrote his first play, “Christ,” which was banned in Boston and publicly burned after Hartmann’s arrest for obscenity. A critic from the original New York Sun, James Gibbons Huneker, called “Christ” “the most daring of all decadent productions.”

King of the Bohemians, Past & Present, By William Bryk, The New York Sun, January 26, 2005

More: See my collection of links at del.icio.us related to Hartmann.

36 Partial Views of Hokusai


Went to see the huge Hokusai exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum (Ueno) last Saturday, and it’s well worth seeing. However, do yourself a favor and don’t even contemplate going on a weekend (like I stupidly did) or holiday, unless you have some perverted desire to feel what cattle feel like being herded from one place to the next. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to queue at a museum, not on the outside, mind you (although we did have to do that, but only for about 10 minutes or so — a far cry from the 2 hours I once waited to get into the Uffizi, I seem to recall) but on the inside, as I entered each exhibition space or set of prints!

I felt thankful I had a height advantage and I could’ve viewed the entire exhibit that way, but the person I was with did not and so we dutifully queued up and slowly trudged our way through each gallery. My feet shuffling skills certainly improved over the course of the afternoon. One thing I noticed was that at the beginning of each series, there would be a queue or confused crush, but as one proceeded further down the wall/series, the crowd would soon thin out. So with some perserverence, it was possible to steal 5 or 10 seconds uninterrupted in front of a print, without feeling the immediate pressure to start shuffling again.

If I could do it all over again (with only 3 weeks remaining I can’t), not only would I go on a weekday but I would forego the heavy hitters of the show, namely the prints from the 36 Views of Mt. Fuji series (the exhibition was not surprisingly at its most gridlocked here, all roads leading to the wave), and go straight to the last galleries, which feature Hokusai’s work from the last 10 years or so of his life. Some unbelievably beautiful work here, work I had never seen before. This was his “Manji” period (overview with woefully inadequate samples at link), and it’s hard to fathom to creativity and artistry evidenced by someone in his 80’s (his last known work, done at age 89 or 90, depending on how you count it, is on view). Particularly striking were his Brush Painting Manual series of 10 paintings, so vivid they look like they were created yesterday (extremely tiny sample at the bottom of this page), and one particular painting on a scroll, the title of which escapes me, but which depicted a woman with a Mona Lisa smile on her face, her child behind her, and about 8 rice farmers in the background, all their heads face down in so that all you can see are shiny silver-ish discs representing their hats. Sublime!