A murdererer apprehended in 1939 Tokyo through the old-fashioned detective methods of wearing out shoe leather and risking hemorrhoids and eye strain while sitting through hours and hours of careful examination of documents. A surprise killer with a surprise motive, nabbed by men armed with magnifying glasses and dogged determination.
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Think globally. Act locally.
Now there is a phrase which when it comes to compacting the most meaning into the fewest words has no real competition this side of the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, Verse 35.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
It lacks the philosophical punch of the loftier “Think globally, Act locally”, maybe, but it is an easily remembered set of practical instructions.
Think globally. Act locally.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Like the right thing to do all the time?
Well, today we’re going to take a look at a case where not enough local thinking and too much reusing turned out to be the wrong thing to do.
Our historical true crime case for Episode 6 is “The Tragic End of Dr. Do Little” or “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”. The story begins on August 1st 1939 in a grass-covered vacant lot along the Oume Kaido, the road which runs from central Tokyo out to the suburb of Oume to the northwest. It was in this empty lot, located in the Mabashi section of Tokyo’s Suginami Ward that three bundles were discovered. The bundles were wrapped in kraft paper and between the three of them contained a disarticulated human skeleton.
Detectives from the Suginami Police Station responded to the vacant lot where the bundles of bones had been discovered and began examining the surrounding area. They quickly realized two very important things. One was that a search of the immediate surroundings and interviews of people in the area would turn up no clues or witnesses and the other was that they were going to need outside help on this one. The area covered by the Suginami Police Station in 1939 had over 147,000 people living in about 33,000 households and there were very few detectives assigned to the section handling murders and missing persons investigations. Police records from a few years earlier, in 1935, indicate there were only 8 men working out of Suginami homicide.
One interesting aspect of Japanese policing is that overall Japan has a pretty large police force when you consider the relatively low crime rate. While a case may come up that can overwhelm the personnel assigned to any given local police station, chances are that other stations have personnel working lower priority cases that can be put on the back burner for a while. The national and prefectural organization of the police also makes it easy and in fact common for personnel temporarily to be shifted from one jurisdiction to another, sometimes en masse. The Suginami detectives put in a request to Tokyo Metropolitan Police headquarters for more men to come help them out. There was no way the small handful of detectives from Suginami could possibly burn all the shoe leather that was going to need to be burned to solve this one in a timely manner.
A pathologist examined the bones and concluded that they were from a man in his late 30s, probably about 165cm tall. He wasn’t a manual laborer and he seemed to have been well nourished and healthy. Chemical analysis was performed on the soil found on the bones and the results showed the presence of lime and iron in levels that caused detectives to suspect that the soil came from beneath a house. The teeth were examined and the upper incisors had gold inlay work which looked to have been done about 5 years prior. The quality of the inlay work revealed a level of skill that made investigators believe it must have been done by a dentist in a large city.
Other than the bones, the only items of physical evidence police had to work with was the paper which had been used to wrap them. With no witnesses and with no identification of the victim, any clues which would lead them to a solution of the case were going to have to come from these pieces of plain Kraft wrapping paper. Detectives began an a minute examination of the paper.
On one of the pieces of wrapping paper, they found a blue border, about the size of a postcard. It looked like an outline left after a shipping label had been ripped from the paper. Fortunately for the detectives, the paper had gotten damp at some point while the shipping label was still on it and in spots the ink had faintly bled through onto the wrapping paper beneath.
Police were able to make out the Chinese character for “ward” in the address. This was a good sign, as only a handful of major cities in Japan have “ward” as part of their address, with Tokyo being one of them. Every city, town, and village in Japan which didn’t have “ward’ subdivisions was automatically eliminated and there was a strong chance that the paper had been on a package mailed to an address inside Tokyo itself. Japanese addresses are traditionally written top-to-bottom, right-to-left, and in increasing specificity as you go. Imagine if you will a big outer circle, filled with several smaller circles, then with each of those smaller circles also filled with several smaller circles, and each of *those* also filled with smaller circles. Now assign a name to the larger ones and numbers to the smaller ones and write them down in order from largest to smallest. In overly simplistic terms, that’s how Japanese addresses work. We have house numbers, but we don’t have street names or street numbers. There are a few named streets, but the street names are irrelevant to the addressing scheme.
So what we have so far is a strong educated guess that the address is a ward….an administrative subsection….of Tokyo. Which one? They couldn’t tell, since that part hadn’t bled through. They’ve only got it narrowed down to 7 million people in one and half million households in Tokyo….and that’s not counting the business addresses. Moving down what looked to be about 3 characters below “ward” detectives could faintly make out what looked like the kanji for “temple”. To the left of that line and farther down, there was a dim “24”. To the right of where the label had been removed the word “kozutumi”…”small parcel” had been rubber stamped onto the paper.
That’s it. Those are all the clues detectives had to work with. Any leads or any developments in the case were going to have to start with no more than that. With an attitude of “The merely difficult we do right away: the impossible takes a little longer” the detectives decided on the three practical steps they would take to tackle the case.
1. They would check missing persons reports from the previous year, manually sifting through the reports in that pre-computerized era to select out the ones whose physical characteristics matched those of the victim. The soil found on the bones indicated a strong possibility that the bones had been discarded by someone who had moved and needed to get rid of a body they had buried in their crawlspace. Investigators working the missing persons angle would keep a sharp eye out for those from families which had moved recently. Making the already large problem even larger was the fact that there was no way of knowing whether the missing person was from Tokyo or not. Nor, if fact, was there even any way of knowing for sure that there was a missing report on the victim to begin with. There was always the possibility this line of investigation could turn out to be a complete wild goose chase.
2. They would contact dentists and try to establish identity through dental records. These days we’re all used to the idea of using dental x-rays to identify human remains. They’re pretty much the next best thing to DNA when it comes to making a positive identification. But what was the situation like in Japan in 1939? The first practical clinical applications of dental x-rays in Japan were done in 1924, with each x-ray exposure costing about 2 yen. That sounds ridiculously cheap to our ears today, but let’s remember that at the time a laborer made somewhere around 1 yen per day. Our victim’s work looked to have been done 5 or so years before, in about 1934. That was the same year that papers on dental x-rays began to feature prominently in the professional journal put out by Japan’s dental association, so it’s a pretty good bet that there were no x-ray images of the gold inlay work on the victim’s incisors. Investigators were going to have to go by the dentists” hand-drawn records of their work and they were going to have to traipse all over Tokyo to do it. Further, they had no better way to narrow things down than that the patient was a man in his late thirties and that the dentist was well-skilled. Detectives assigned to this needle-in-a-haystack search certainly had their work cut out for them.
3. They would examine the wrapping paper and try to determine which post office it had been mailed from, and try to determine the addressee in hopes that it would turn out the address was that of either the killer or the victim. Even if they did manage to find the address, there was the possibility that the person had nothing to do with the case. Detectives would start on the assumption that the parcel had been mailed from a post office in Tokyo, but that was only an assumption: there was nothing on the paper that told them definitiely it had been posted from inside Tokyo. If it had been sent from a Tokyo post….of which there were hundreds, all of which had to be checked until they were certain they had the right one….that would narrow things down for them a bit. But the parcel could possibly have been sent from any post office in Japan. How many were there in 1939? There were 12, 938 of them and that year alone they handled over 101 *million* parcel deliveries. No doubt the Suginami detectives were fervently praying the package had been sent from inside Tokyo.
That’s the situation the detectives faced as they fanned out across Tokyo in the stifling August heat to begin their manhunt.
On the 5th day of the investigation detectives got their first break in the case when they determined that the “small parcel” rubber stamp imprint on the Kraft paper matched up with a stamp from the Kotenba-machi Post Office in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi. Now they knew for certain where the parcel had come from. The next step was to break out the magnifying glasses and start examining their records of shipping labels until they could match up the handwriting on the character for “ward” on one of them with the faint writing on the wrapping paper. Diligent work revealed that the handwriting matched the writing of a clerk at a wholesaler of cord and twine in Nihonbashi’s Bakuromachi. ‘
Detectives headed for the wholesaler’s and started going through their sales records. The fact that that the character for “ward” is used only in the addresses of a few major cities in Japan had given them the outermost of the set of circles within circles. The finding of the rubber stamp at a post office confirmed that Tokyo was the right city. As Tokyo is currently constituted, 23 wards make up the central metropolitan area. Japan has historically rearranged and regrouped and renamed its various prefectures, cities, towns, and villages to the point their own mothers wouldn’t recognize them and you may be pretty sure that no matter the current name of wherever you happen to be standing in Japan, it used to be called something else and probably not all that long ago either. Tokyo is no exception. Even in the midst of World War II bureaucrats were busy rearranging the administrative subdivisions of Tokyo. The current division into 23 wards came about in 1943. At the time of our story, in 1939, there were 35 wards which made up Tokyo.
The next somewhat legible character that had bled through the damp shipping label onto the wrapping paper was three characters down and looked like the character for “temple”. Now it was a simple process of elimination to get to the next circle within a circle. All they had to do was go through the list of names of areas within each ward and see how many places they came up with that character as the third one. This would naturally at the same time tell them which ward they were looking for, even though those characters were entirely illegible. By this process detectives were then very quickly able to determine that the package had been sent to an address in Kouenji, Suginami Ward. Detectives sat down and started going through the wholesaler’s records, making note of every customer they had with an address in Kouenji. When they finished, they had a list of five. Now things were definitely looking up. With the slim clues of two faintly legible characters and the imprint of a rubber stamp and five days of dedicated drudge work they had succeeded in narrowing the search down from anywhere in the entire country and then down to one of the more than one and a half million addresses in Tokyo and then down a mere five candidate addresses. By further scrutiny of the records they were able to determine that the package had been sent to a man named Shirakawa Kan at the Umeya Bakery in Kouenji. The process of checking out post offices, comparing the rubber stamps at each of them, checking records to see who had sent the package, then checking the records of the sender to determine who had received that scrap of paper used to wrap one of the three packages of bones found thrown in the vacant lot had taken the hard-working team of Tokyo detectives five days to complete.
They had narrowed the scope of their search down to the single address to which that piece of wrapping paper had mailed at some point in the past, but detectives had no way of knowing if that paper was tied with the killer or with the victim. Or it might turn out not to be connected to either of them and instead be an investigative dead-end. The other lines of investigation, those working the dental records and missing persons reports angles would have to continue. The team tracking down the address visited the Umeya Bakery to interview Shirakawa Kan, the man to whom the package had been addressed.
They found him to be a man in his 40s who gave the impression of being an honest and hardworking upright citizen. He spent his days running the Shirakawa’s family business. In response to questions about the Shirakawa household, Kan told investigators that he had a younger brother named Seizou and that Seizou had been to prison three times. Where was Seizou now, detectives wanted to know. Kan said that he didn’t know where Seizou was. He said Seizou had suddenly disappeared from the family home about two years earlier and that he had heard a rumor Seizou was running a soba restaurant in Osaka, but he really wasn’t sure. Kan had filed a missing person report on Seizou with the police, though. Maybe the bones were his?
This information was a boon to the teams working the missing persons records and the dental records investigations. Now for the first time they at least had a candidate name to work with. Instead of looking through *all* the records of every dentist in Tokyo who had a reputation for doing good work and comparing the inlays in the dead man’s teeth with drawings of the work on the records of every adult male patient, they could speed up the process exponentially by working the telephone lines until they found a dentist who had a patient named Shirakawa Seizou. They found what they were looking for. It turned out the gold inlays had been done by a dentist on Miyazono Street in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward a few years ago, when Seizou was 37 years old. Comparison of the teeth with the dentst’s records confirmed that the bones in the vacant lot were indeed those of Shirakawa Seizou, the man reported missing by his brother two years earlier. The identification was strengthened when a forensic pathologist matched up a photo of Seizou’s face with a photo of the recovered skull and found the features to match.
Investigators started checking out the Shirakawa family. Several people who worked at the Umeya Bakery lived on the premises, together with the Shirakawa family. It seemed unlikely that Seizou could have been killed at the bakery, as there was too much chance of the killing being discovered. The patriarch of the Shirakawa family, Mitsuzou, didn’t live at the bakery in Suginami Ward, detectives learned. He lived alone at a house in Yamato-machi in Nakano Ward, where he had often been visited by Seizou, who was his third son. Seizou had lived with the old man for a while, neighbors told detectives, further telling them that the two often had arguments and that Mitsuzou frequently complained that Seizou was going to be the ruination of the entire family. Neighbors informed police that they had observed Seizou with a bandage on his forehead around the time of one of these fierce father and son arguments and said that it had happened in 1937, remembering the date because it had happened around the same time war had broken out with China. Also around that same time, they said, Mitsuzou and Kan had been seen digging up the ground in front of the house in Nakano Ward. People in the neighborhood had noticed a strange foul smell in the area for a while after that.
On the seventh day after opening their investigation, police arrested father Shirakawa Mitsuzou and his eldest son Shirakawa Kan on charges of murder and unlawful disposition of a corpse. The two readily confessed their guilt.
Detectives learned that Seizou had graduated from a veterinary school in Tokyo’s Azabu area and then gone to Nagano Prefecture, where he had married into an old family and established his veterinary practice. Despite being set up for what should have been the start of a rosy future, Seizou ruined it by a lazy no-good worthless bum who eventually turned to theft to gain the money to fund his drunken dissipation. He was caught and sent to prison. After getting out of prison the first time, he wandered around aimlessly and ended up back in the pokey twice more for fraud and embezzlement.
In 1937, at the age of 35 the young man who had left his father’s home a freshly graduated young doctor of veterinary medicine with a promising future returned to it a drunken shiftless lout and moved back in and lay about sponging off his 74 year old father. That alone would have been bad enough and a sufficient embarrassment to the old man, but Seizou compounded things by having visits from friends from his prison days. Mitsuzou had worked hard and built up a successful family business which he had passed down to his eldest son. He had set Seizou up to have a successful life in a respected profession. Mitsuzou had a solid reputation and the respect of all who knew him. Family was family and he was sort of stuck with neighbors seeing Seizou back at home as a drunken bum, but having Seizou’s shady criminal companions paying visits to his house was a bit much for Mitsuzou. Nakano wasn’t an area that had much going on in the way of shady characters and these guys would stand out. By way of background research for this episode, I went into Japan’s national archives and dug up the Tokyo Metropolitan Police annual report for 1939 and took a look at what kinds of crimes were being committed in the area under the Nakano Police Department’s area of responsibility. They covered an area with about 119,000 residents living in 26,766 households. For the entire year of 1939 there was only one reported home burglary out of those almost 27,000 homes. There were 13 arrests for forgery and 39 arrests for gambling and 110 arrests for fraud. There would be only one arrest for murder in the area for that whole year. The kind of characters Seizou was associating with would stand out to neighbors like a sore thumb.’
Seizou and his felonious friends were cooking up plans to go to Hokkaido and commit an armed robbery there. That turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Mitsuzou. He knew that if he didn’t do something to prevent it, his worthless son would just go on being a public nuisance forever. So he did something to prevent it. He used a hatchet to kill Seizou as he lay sleeping.
After killing Seizou, he then told his eldest son Kan what he had done. At first Kan offered to take the blame for the killing on himself and tell police that he had done it. After talking it over, though, the two decided that they would just bury Seizou beneath the floorboards of the house and file a missing person report on him. After all, Seizou was a wayward ex-convict who had just suddenly drifted back into the family home on a breeze and no one would think it odd if he just drifted back out on another one.
With the war going on in China, Kan had recently received his draft notice and would soon have to go off to serve in the army. Mitsuzou would have to come back to run the bakery again so it was decided Mitsuzou would move into the living quarters at the bakery in Kouenji and sell the house in Nakano Ward….the house where the body of Seizou was buried. You can’t just leave your buried bodies lying about a property when you move. Not only is it impolite, it is dangerous to your own continued liberty. After all, there is no way of knowing when the next or some future owner is going to do some demolition, construction, or renovation that is going to turn up the evidence of your wrongdoing and bring you unwanted attention from John Law and the Do RIght. Boys. No, you have to dig them up and move them and that’s just what Mitsuzou and Kan did. They dug up Seizou, chopped him into pieces, and wrapped the pieces up in three bundles, reusing paper from packages received at the bakery. They loaded the bundles onto a bicycle and took them out to the grassy vacant lot along the Oume Kaido and threw them into the weeds.’
In 1939 nobody reduced, reused, or recycled because they were worried about the environment, or depleting natural resources or promoting sustainable this, that, or the other. They did it out of the simple frugal habits which are second nature to those who have lived through times of economic hardship. Mitsuzou and Kan had the presence of mind to remove the potentially incriminating shipping label from the wrapping paper they reused to bundle up all that was left of the moral remains of Seizou, but it was that act of unthinking, instinctive frugality that led to their arrests a short seven days later. That single arrest for murder in all of Nakano Ward for all of 1939 mentioned earlier? That was the arrest of Shirakawa Mitsuzou for the murder of Seizou. Whether because of his advanced age or in tacit recognition that the killing of a career criminal such as Seizou had turned into was commendable homicide even if it wasn’t justifiable homicide, the old man was sentenced to only two years in prison for the murder. For his part in helping dispose of the body, Kan was sentenced to ten months.
That’s all for Episode 6. If you enjoyed it, please do me a big favor and rate and review it on iTunes. It would really help in getting the podcast noticed and help it grow. Unlike some of the true crime podcasts out there which essentially just record themselves reading a Wikipedia page to you and calling it a podcast, I actually spend several hours each week researching and preparing what boils down to a little 15 or 20 minute story. It can easily take up to ten hours to research, write, record, edit, and publish one of these. If it isn’t asking too much, give me back a minute or two or your time by rating and reviewing the show, please. Follow on Twitter @hanzaipodcast or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you for listening and I’ll talk to you again soon.’