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.

Campaign poster, Tanforan Assembly Center, 1942

Campaign poster, San Bruno, CA, June 16, 1942 (Photo: Dorothea Lange)

Full title: Building of the Tanforan Center are plastered at this time with all manner of locally devised posters incident to the election of five members of the Advisory Council. Three candidates were nominated from each of the five precincts. Photographer: Lange, Dorothea. San Bruno, California. 6/16/42

(From the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives)

English text: “THE MAN FIGHTS TO DEATH FOR OUR GOOD / VOTE R.S. IKI / PREC’T. 3”
Japanese text: 我等の興廢此一戰にあり・闘士井木君に投票せよ (warera no kouhai kono issen ni ari. toushi Iki-kun ni touhyou seyo. Loosely translated: “Our survival depends on this fight. Vote for fighter Mr. Iki. Precinct 3.”)

The candidate was one Robert Iki, who had been a student at UC Berkeley before his evacuation to the Tanforan Assembly Center. Iki was running for a position on the Advisory Council of the Assembly Center, which was located at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno and which is now The Shops at Tanforan shopping mall. During six months of 1942, it held over 8,000 Japanese American evacuees forced to leave their homes subsequent to Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 in February of that year.

According to Brian Masaru Hayashi in his book Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment, evacuees at Tanforan pushed for some sort of self-government at the center and with the center manger’s blessing, organized a campaign for a Center Advisory Council. Issei (first generation Japanese immigrant) were allowed to run for seats, as well as vote, something they could not of course normally do as non-citizens. (These privileges were later rescinded.)

As first generation immigrants, and furthermore immigrants who had already been adjudged guilty until proven innocent, their assets frozen, forced to give up most of their possessions, housed in primitive conditions at the center, it can be safe to assume that the issei had very conflicting feelings toward both their homeland of Japan and their adopted home of America. (There were also kibei, a subset of nisei who had been educated in Japan, and thus considered by some the most “dangerous” in terms of their loyalty or lack thereof.) Therefore, it is probably not surprising that, at least in the case of Robert Iki whose campaign poster is shown here, an attempt was made to appeal to the sense of injustice many of them must have felt.

While Iki’s English campaign text is fairly innocuous, if not even a tad amusing in its awkward English, his Japanese text is rather pointed, especially if you bear in mind that it is an allusion to a famous saying by the Imperial Japanese Navy admiral Heihachiro Togo, who before the decisive Battle of Tsushima of the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, told his men:

皇国の興廢此の一戰に在り。各員一層奮励努力せよ
(koukoku no kouhai kono issen ni ari. kakuin issou funrei doryoku seyo. Translated: “The fate of the Empire rests upon this one battle; let every man do his utmost.”)

Togo, who died in 1934, was certainly someone familiar to most, if not all, Japanese at the time, including issei immigrants to America. After his naval career, he became president of the Ogakumonjo, the school specially constructed for the secondary education of then Crown Prince Hirohito, and was in charge of Hirohito’s education between the ages of 13 and 19. Perhaps more importantly as far as the public at the time was concerned, he was considered in the popular culture of the day as a “war god” or 軍神 (gunshin). As Herbert P. Bix writes in his Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan,

[Between 1925 and 1930], many emotional articles, books, picture books, and plays had appeared that gave national prominence to the Russo-Japanese War and to the admiral whose “divine action” (kamiwaza) had saved Japan in its confrontation with Russia. These stories featured, as “paragons of the military man” and leading “war gods” (as opposed to mere heroes), Fleet Admiral Togo, who was still alive and active, and Comm. Hirose Takeo, who in 1904 had died attempting to seal the harbor in the second battle of Port Arthur….

Thanks to these numerous literary conjurings[…], [c]hildren and young adults whose parents had fought in 1904-5 became better informed about the war that had won Japan a continental empire. Thus the decade that had begun as antimilitary ended with quite a different spirit: a massive reaffirmation of empire, the placing of hope in the myth of “war gods” like Admiral Togo and General Nogi, and the “virtures” of the young emperor.

Where Japan went from this increased militarism is of course known to all, and it brings us back to the reason, for right or wrong, that the American government decided to evacuate and intern in camps over 120,000 Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1944. What Iki intended with his allusion to Togo’s famous statement we do not know, of course. It could have been simply a brainy college student being clever. Or it may have been an attempt to stir the fighting spirit of his fellow camp members. Perhaps it was a middle finger shown while the teacher was looking the other way. At any rate, there seems ultimately to have been very little subversive about Robert Iki, historical allusions aside. As one garners from the lengthy caption that accompanies the 1945 picture of him shown below, also from the WRA archives, by the last year of the war Iki had gone on to work for the Federal Communications Commission as an editor in the Far Eastern Section of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence. It’s not clear if he ever did win a spot on the Advisory Council for Precinct 3 that summer. Even if he had, it would have been a short-lived victory, for by September or October of that year he and his family were being sent to the relocation camp at Topaz, Utah.

Robert Iki, photograph by Gretchen Van Tassel, January 26, 1945