Some of Hirasawa’s shunga
Hirasawa Sadamichi (February 18, 1892 – May 10, 1987) was a Japanese tempera painter. He was convicted of mass poisoning and sentenced to death, though he is suspected to have been falsely charged and no justice minister signed his death warrant.
On January 26, 1948 a man calling himself an epidemiologist arrived in a branch of the Teikoku Bank (aka Teigin) at Shiinamachi, a suburb of Toshima, Tokyo, before closing time. He explained that he was a public health official sent by US occupation authorities who had orders to inoculate the staff against a sudden outbreak of dysentery. He gave all sixteen people present a pill and a few drops of liquid. Those present drank the liquid he gave, which was a cyanide solution. When all were incapacitated, the robber took all the money he could find, which amounted to 160,000 yen. Ten of the victims died at the scene (one was a child of an employee) and two others died while hospitalized.
Arrest and trial
Hirasawa was caught by the police due to the Japanese habit of exchanging business cards with personal details. There had been two other extremely similar cases of attempted and actual theft at banks via the use of poison in the weeks and months prior to the robbery. In all cases the poisoner, a lone male, left a business card. The poisoner used a card which was marked " Yamaguchi JIro" in one of the two incidents, but it was later found that said Yamaguchi did not exist: the card was a fake. The poisoner also used a real card which was marked "Matsui Shigeru " (of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Department of Disease Prevention) in another of the two incidents. The original owner of the card was found to have an alibi. Matsui told the police that he had exchanged cards with 593 people, but of these 100 were of the type used in the poisoning incidents of which 8 remained in his possession. Matsui recorded the time and place of the business card exchange on the back of cards he received so the police set out to trace the remaining 92 cards. 62 cards were retrieved and their receivers cleared, a further 22 were deemed to have been irrelevant to the case. One of the remaining 8 cards was received by Hirasawa. The police were led to arrest Hirasawa because
1. he could not produce the card he had received from Matsui. Hirasawa claimed to have lost the business card together with his wallet due to his having been the victim of pickpocketing.
2. a similar amount of money to that stolen from the bank was found in Hirasawa's possession whose origin he refused to divulge. The origin of the money is unknown to this day (though some, such as the famous crime fiction novelist Seichô Matsumoto, suggested Hirasawa received it by drawing Shunga (pornographic pictures), a side business that would have been detrimental to Hirasawa's reputation as an artist).
3. being unable to verify Hirasawa's alibi of having been taking a stroll in the vicinity of the crime scene.
4. Hirasawa was identified as the poisoner by several witnesses (but only by two survivors).
5. He confessed to having been involved in four previous cases of bank fraud (recanted together with his subsequent confession)
He was arrested on August 21, 1948. After police interrogation which allegedly involved torture, Hirasawa confessed, but he recanted soon after. His later defence against confession was based on partial insanity, alleging that he had been troubled with Korsakoff's syndrome (as a result of rabies inoculation) and so his confession was not reliable. The court, however, disagreed and Hirasawa was given the death penalty in 1950. Until 1949, a confession had been a solid evidence under the law, even if the police tortured a person to extract a confession. The Supreme Court of Japan upheld the death sentence in 1955. His attorneys tried to have the sentence revoked, submitting 18 pleas for retrial over the following years.
Doubt over guilty verdict
He was sentenced to death, but there was originally no conclusive evidence. In addition, although 40 employees saw the crimes, there were only two people who identified him as the criminal. Matsumoto Seicho presumed that the true culprit was Unit 731 in his books A story of the Teikoku Bank Incident in 1959 and The Black Fog of Japan in 1960. Matsumoto also suspected that "the money of unknown origin" came from selling pornographic drawings (shunga). Kumai Kei protested Hirasawa's innocence by his film The Long Death in 1964. Successive Ministers of Justice in Japan did not sign his death warrant, so the death sentence was never carried out. Even Tanaka Isaji, who on 13 October 1967 announced in front of the press that he had signed death warrant of 23 prisoners in one go, did not sign Hirasawa's death warrant, stating that he doubted Hirasawa's guilt.
The poison was regarded as the readily obtainable potassium cyanide in Hirasawa's trial. One of the reasons given to doubt Hirasawa's guilt is because the victims' symptoms were clearly different from potassium cyanide poisoning, which is rapid. Keio University's contemporary investigation claimed that the true poison may have been acetone cyanohydrin, a military poison deliberately designed to be slow-acting, which Hirasawa could not have obtained.
Death in jail
Hirasawa remained in prison as a condemned criminal for the 32 years. He spent his time painting and writing his autobiography My Will: the Teikoku Bank Case.
In 1981, Endo Makoto became the leader of Hirasawa's lawyers. Besides the case, he took part in controversial trials such as Nagayama Norio. The defense claimed that statute of limitations for his death penalty ran out in 1985. The death penalty has 30-year statute of limitations under the Criminal Code of Japan, and so Endo appealed for his release. However, the Japanese court refused this argument pointing out that the statute only applies in the case if a death row inmate escapes from prison and evades capture for 30 years. Japanese courts judge that the punishment begins when the minister signs the death warrant. His health deteriorated in 1987. On April 30, 1987, Amnesty International petitioned the Japanese government to release him. He died of pneumonia in a prison hospital on May 10, 1987.
After his death
Even after Hirasawa's death, his son by adoption, Hirasawa Takehiko, has tried to clear his name. They submitted a 19th plea for retrial. His brain damage was also proved. As of 2008, his lawyers have submitted new evidence to attempt to prove Hirasawa's innocence.