It is commonly said that truth is stranger than fiction, and while I won’t go quite that far, I have to admit that the truth can be quite strange at times. Criminals can be extremely creative, with the most creative often being the most successful. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in his Father Brown story “The Blue Cross:” “The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic.” It is frankly amazing what real-life criminals come up with—and get away with.
Today I present a set of Japanese true crime stories that are used in fiction and vice versa.
First up is the Teigin bank robbery. For all its cruelty, this well-known case shows how ingenious a criminal can be. The year is 1948. A man identifying himself as public health official arrives at a branch of the Teikoku Bank (abbreviated as Teigin). The man says he has been ordered by the US occupation troops to inoculate the staff at the bank against a sudden outbreak of dysentery. The staff-members are all given a pill and a liquid, which they take at the same time on the mark of the man. The liquid, however, is a cyanide solution and while everyone is incapitated, the man makes off with 160,000 yen. 10 victims die on the scene, two others die in the hospital. A suspect is arrested and convicted, but the evidence against him is hardly conclusive.
The plot might sound familiar to readers of Ellery Queen, as he used it for the short story “Tokyo’s Greatest Bank Robbery” in his true crime story collection Ellery Queen’s International Casebook. In Japanese fiction, the case might be most famous because of its appearance in Seishi Yokomizo’s The Devil Comes Playing His Flute (Akuma ga kitarite fue wo fuku), where the illustrious Teigin case (here renamed the Tengin case) is just the beginning of a whole series of murders. Crime writer Seicho Matsumoto (Seichō Matsumoto) also wrote several books delving into his theories on who really committed the horrible Teigin crime.
While the Teigin case is pretty famous, the best known heist is probably the 300,000,000 yen (yes, that’s 300 million yen!) robbery. Committed in 1968, it remains unsolved even now. As in the Teigin case, the criminal chose a method both simple and effective. Four bank employees were transporting 300 million yen. They were stopped by a police officer on a motorcycle, who said that their manager’s house had been blown up and that the police were told that dynamite had been placed in the transport car. The four men promptly got out, and the officer crawled under the car to inspect it. Suddenly smoke and flames came from under the car, and the officer yelled that the bomb was going to explode. The four bank employees ran away, only to see the police officer drive off with the car.
The criminal was lauded by some people. A man who used no violence in his heist, who only used his wit to get away with 300 million yen, he was almost like a modern Arsène Lupin! The case also sparked the inspiration of many. Kyotaro Nishimura’s (Kyōtarō Nishimura) Not Afraid of Great Detectives (Meitantei nanka kowakunai) takes up the case in a most extravagant way: in this novel, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen (the fictional character), Georges Simenon’s Maigret and Edogawa Rampo’s Akechi Kogorō all work together to solve the 300 million yen robbery! But that’s certainly not all. A quick look on Wikipedia gives us 14 novels, 3 movies and 6 TV dramas directly based on the case and even more fiction that is either inspired by the case or just plain parody.
But it is not only truth that inspires fiction. Many people take their cues from fiction. Some might just borrow a name. In 2002, a 19-year old woman was arrested who was member of a group of burglars calling themselves ‘Cat’s Eye’, after Tsukasa Hojo’s (Tsukasa Hōjō) famous 80’s comic featuring a trio of female cat burglars.
One of the more famous cases featuring a fictional character come to life has to be the Glico-Morinaga case. In April 1984, the president of industrial confectionary Glico was kidnapped, but he managed to escape on his own. Some weeks later a letter was sent to Glico, signed The Fiend with 21 Faces (referencing Edogawa Rampo’s The Fiend with Twenty Faces character), claiming that he had laced Glico’s candies with poison. Glico removed their candies from stores at great expense, but the “Fiend” threatened to ship out poisoned candies anyway unless they were paid off. Afterwards, the “Fiend” targeted other companies, including Morinaga. No one was ever arrested, and the letters stopped in August, 1985.
Another crime that occurs more often that I had though seems to be inspired by two of Edogawa Rampo’s short stories “The Stroller in the Attic” and “The Human Chair.” The former story tells of a man who derives pleasure from walking around the attic of his boarding home, spying on people. The latter tells of a man who actually lives inside a chair made for a hotel, with the man getting out of his hiding place at night to steal food and other items. A quick search got me at least four cases, eerily similar: unemployed men and women who creep up the attics of offices, stores or even private homes and steal food and money when the coast is clear. Some even do some peeping. The most recent case I found was of 2009, when a 60(!) year old woman hiding in the loft of an office was found because someone noticed that toilet paper was disappearing!
Honestly, it’s not a case of truth being stranger than fiction or vice versa: they can both be very strange.