Sadamichi Hirasawa

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“But something is wrong, very wrong…”

The Google Alert notified me a few days ago that, according to The Japan Times, a 54-year-old Japanese man, Takehiko Hirasawa, died alone and unheralded in Suginami Ward, Tokyo. Cause of death is unknown. When the crime that obsessed him most of his adult life occurred, he had not yet been born. He was not yet the son of two fathers. He was not yet the head of the Society to Save Sadamichi Hirasawa.

He was no one any of you were likely to have heard of. (I see The Wrongful Convictions Blog noticed Takehiko’s death, though.) Nor would you likely have known about those who died in the criminal events that pursued Takehiko’s conscience, all 12 of them. Nor was the story of his adopted father, sent to death row where he would never be executed, even after over 30 years, likely known to many of you, as past crimes fade like letters written upon a mystic writing pad.

The date of the crime was January 26, 1948. It was by all accounts a most extraordinary event. The intervention of the Americans into the Tokyo police investigation was documented by William Triplett in his 1985 book, The Flowering of the Bamboo. The crime story made the U.S. press over the years, only to repeatedly slip and slosh back into the inky depths of press oblivion.

Here’s what went down: in the western Tokyo district of Shinjuku, 16 people had been at a Tokyo branch of the Teikoku Ginko bank (abbreviated as “Teigin”). It was closing time on a wet afternoon, the streets muddy, the city still reeling from the massive incendiary bombings by the Americans less than three years before. Now the Americans were the occupiers. Japanese imprisoned abroad during the war were still trickling back into Japan. Some of them were war criminals. Some had belonged to a notorious but ultra-secret military unit involved in biological warfare experimentation and operations.

“And now I look him in his face. It is round, very round. Like an egg.”

Much later… Much, much later, decades later, we would learn the U.S. had a hand in covering up this biowarfare unit, known as Unit 731. (Actually, there turned out to be many such units scattered throughout the Japanese Army, and included contacts at prestigious universities and medical schools.) We learned that thousands of prisoners had been experimented on, inoculated with disease, shot with poisoned bullets, exposed to germ bombs, forced to impregnate each other with syphilis, subjected to vivisection (dissected alive).

Only later, much, much later, would we learn that Japanese biological warfare operations would kill hundreds of thousands in China during World War 2. It was by far the greatest sustained use of BW in warfare up to that time, but it was hidden, giving the lie to the supposed truth that no huge conspiracy could ever succeed for long. (For most scholarly treatment of the entire historical event, though still incomplete on its own, see Sheldon Harris’s book, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45 and the American Cover-Up.)

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“This serum is very strong and if it touches your teeth or gums it can cause great damage. So please listen and watch carefully as I demonstrate how to swallow the serum safely.”

A man came to the bank. He wore an armband that identified him as a health official. He said he was a doctor. There had been a dysentery outbreak and he was working with the Americans to prevent an outbreak. Would each bank worker please take the specially-derived antidote please? The workers looked at the bottles the “doctor” had brought. They were marked in English “First Drug” and “Second Drug.” They drank, and within minutes, 12 were dead. The “doctor,” who also drank from the bottles but apparently was unfazed by their contents, disappeared with a small amount of cash. One woman staggered into the street and gathered the attention of stunned pedestrians.

The investigation was huge, and the Tokyo press, like all reporters, were hungry for a big story. The Japanese cops went to the Americans, who still controlled censorship over the Japanese press in Jan. 1948. Would they help suppress this story? They would, replied the Americans. (See Triplett’s documents at the rear of his book.)

“Now drip the liquid onto your tongues.”

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There was one other wrinkle. The cops were getting tips. According to sources, the killer was linked to Unit 731 (or perhaps an affiliated unit). This was inconvenient to say the least, because only months before, the U.S. had solidified a deal with Gen. Shiro Ishii, the head of Unit 731, and his associates and workers, to hide the evidence of their crimes in exchange for extensive debriefings about what they had discovered about using BW agents on humans. They were also getting slides of human tissues from Unit 731′s experiments, at least 8,000 such slides, which were sent on to researchers at Ft. Detrick.

The Americans knew, too, that some of the experiments had likely been conducted on U.S. and British POWs at Mukden POW camp, and possibly other sites. They had kept the whole affair out of the Tokyo International Military Tribunal, even as similar crimes were being prosecuted at Nuremberg. But the “Teigin Incident” threatened to blow the whole story.

Commander in Chief, Far Eastern Command (May 47): “Data already obtained from Ishii and his colleagues have proven to be of great value in confirming, supplementing and complementing several phases of U.S. research in BW, and may suggest new fields for future research…. the only known source of data from scientifically controlled experiments showing the direct effect of BW agents on man…. The BW information obtained from Japanese sources should be retained in intelligence channels and should not be employed as ‘war crimes’ evidence.”

But the tale of the bizarre bank killings wouldn’t die. The press kept at it. The police needed to find someone to charge with the crime. They found someone. Sadamichi Hirasawa, a painter and sometime pornographer who had no experience with the military or chemistry, unless it was on how to mix a drink. He was interrogated for hours on end and confessed, though he swiftly withdrew his confession as coerced. Too late. Evidence was concealed at trial. The confession was ruled valid by the court. In the end, Sadamichi Hirasawa was sentenced to death.

But that was not the end of the story. There were appeals, denials of appeals, and after many years, a decided policy by the Japanese government never to sign an actual death warrant for Sadamichi’s hanging. Appeals and decades both passed. Hirasawa died on Japan’s death row in 1985. The New York Times noticed the event.

He was 95 years old, and maintained his innocence to the end. Long before he died, in 1962 a famous Japanese writer, Tetsuro Morikawa, founded a Society to Save Hirawawa. According to Triplett, “The Society filed sixteen appeals for retrial and four appeals for pardon. All had been rejected.”

Astoundingly, when his health failed, Tetsuro had his son Takehiko become adopted by Sadamichi, as the latter needed “relatives” if further appeals were to be pursued. In fact, as The Japan Times story makes clear, there was still an active appeal on file, which may (or may not, as the vagaries of the law go) be moot now that Takehiko is dead.

And so it was that Takehiko Morikawa became Takehiko Hirasawa. (Morikawa died in 1983.)

“– and now I see everyone rushing for the sink, for the tap, for the water, and now I am rushing for the sink, for the tap, for the water, and now I see people falling to the floor… people coughing, people retching, people vomiting, and now I can feel people pushing past me… and now the light is leaving us, leaving us here…”

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But perhaps the reader wants to know why Takehiko’s death has any significance now. I cannot tell the reader that. It is already written: in the news about threats of use of biological and chemical weapons by terrorists, by the forgotten tales of use of such weapons by the U.S. and their allies, by some small number of historians who will not let the truth die.

Even a portion of the U.S. government got into the act, late in the game then, long ago now, as judged by many for whom 9/11 “changed everything.”  With 9/11 it seemed as if a veil descended on all that went before it, erasing much of history, so those in power could get away with their crimes.

But before 9/11, in 1999, there were hearings. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who castigated Edward Snowden for the release of documents showing U.S. wrong-doing, helped sponsor the Japanese Imperial Army Disclosure Act of 1999. More information to come out. But not the name of the man who killed a dozen innocent people in one of the strangest poisoning killings on record. That name is not known. Could it have been Sadamichi Hirasawa? Takehiko Hirasawa spent his life trying to prove it was not so.

Takehiko Hirasawa is dead, following his mother by almost a year. The police have ruled out foul play, although it is clear the investigation has not even been completed. Japan is rearming. The US is telling us to fear BW from Syria and Iran (see this Washington Post article from October). The US is pushing experimentation on children to develop an anthrax vaccine to “protect” the US from biological weapons attack.

The victims at the Teikoku Ginko bank call out to us across the decades.

“I am falling, I am falling, I am falling into the grey-ness, I am falling, falling and falling away, away from the light….”

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[The italicized text is taken from David Peace's novelization of the Teigin Incident, Occupied City. The text in bold is from a document reproduced in the appendix to Triplett's book, labelled as from the War Crimes Office, Judge Advocate General's Office, US War Department.]