Episode 42 | JAPAN'S MOST BELOVED KILLER | Yoshie Shiratori
JAPAN'S MOST BELOVED KILLER | Yoshie Shiratori
Our episode today tells the tale of a real-life Japanese anti-hero whose story is so unbelievable you might think that you’ve opened the pages of a popular manga. But alas everything you’re about to hear is completely true, no matter how folklore it may sound. It’s the story of Yoshie Shiratori, a murderer with a rap sheet longer than the queues for a newly opened ramen shop. But despite the fact of his being a less than a stellar member of society, he reached superstar status.
On July 31, 1907, in Aomori Prefecture, Japan’s own Harry Houdini was born. It was said that along with both parents he had several siblings and was quite educated. Shiratori lived a quiet life working in a tofu shop as well as trying his hand at being a fisherman for Russia. Over the years he jumped between several failed businesses, thus spiraling himself into a dark hole of gambling and petty theft. There is not much else known about his early years, however, by the end of his life, almost everyone in Japan knew his name and what he had done. Shiratori’s rise to fame all started with a simple murder and robbery charge, while at the time Shiratori maintained his innocence, the courts eventually found him guilty based on his previous behavior, and he was sentenced to spend time in Aomori Prison. This had upset Shiratori greatly as he knew he was innocent, but they refused to believe it, he had no choice.
So, in 1936 Shiratori is transferred to Aomori Prison and forced to live a life of false imprisonment, well according to him it was false, we’re still not sure whether he was actually innocent. Life in prison was pretty bleak for Shiratori, he endured many days of evening beatings by the prison guards, sometimes bordering on torture. At that point, he was sure that life could not get any worse for him. Oh, how wrong he was! Life was about to get even worse for him, there was talk that prosecutors were thinking about bringing the death penalty upon him as if the nightly beatings weren’t bad enough. When Shiratori heard this, he grew panicked. If he stayed, he was most likely to get beaten to death by the guards or be sentenced to death, either way, he was a dead man walking. He had only one option left, he couldn’t stay there any longer, he had to get out. But how?
For three years he studied the guards, their patterns, and every movement they made, every day for 1095 days he watched and waited. In his mind he knew how difficult it would be to escape from Aomori Prison, he knew the risks but at that point what did he have to lose? As far as he was concerned, absolutely nothing. And so, the great escape began in the early hours of the morning, at 5:30 am to be exact. Shiratori knew that there would be a 15-minute gap in between the guard patrols, he spent months double-checking the timings and was confident that nothing could go wrong. As the time clicked agonizingly closer to half-past, his heartbeat galloped in anticipation and his palms were sweating. This felt different from the times when he was a thief, sneaking into darkened homes and tip-toeing around the sleeping occupants; his life depended on this plan going off without a hitch.
When at last the coast was clear and he was confident he could begin, Shiratori reached out under his disgustingly dirty bed and pulled out a piece of small metal wire. Stealing the wire from the bathroom one evening had been easy enough, he knew how to be quick and silent. The guards had not noticed the missing wire from the metal support ring that was usually wrapped around the bath buckets for the inmates. He grinned to himself as if thinking of a funny joke, he would not miss the icy cold water in the buckets.
Taking a deep breath Shiratori inserted the wire into the cell lock and got to work. While he worked his fingers grew stiff from the bitter cold, but this didn’t stop him, and it was only a short while before he heard the satisfying click of the lock unlocking and the prison door swung open. His first victory but he couldn’t celebrate yet, there were still more doors he needed to pick, and time was running out. He needed to be out of the cellblock before the guards returned. He set to work on the rest of the doors with only a couple of minutes to spare, he had done it. Well, in the first part of his escape, he still had a lot of ground to cover. He was halfway to his freedom, he just needed to get a move on and get out of the search perimeter and he needed to do it fast.
Shiratori ran as fast as he could away from the prison, looking back over his shoulder waiting for the alarm to go off any second, but it didn’t, the night sat perfectly still and silent. Back in the cell block, the guard on patrol at 5:45 am arrived at Shiratori’s cell to find him asleep under the covers. But what they didn’t know was that Shiratori had fooled them all. For under the blankets was a pile of loose floorboards designed to look like a body. It was only when guards went to wake him did, they realize in horror that there was nobody in the cell, and only then did they sound the alarm. But by then it was far too late, Shiratori was long gone.
But alas Shiratori’s freedom was short-lived, for three days later police rearrested him after catching him stealing supplies from a nearby hospital. The court didn’t look favorably towards his Houdini act and the recent theft, they sent him back to prison, for life. For six long years, he endured regular beatings and abuse from the guards in Aomori prison before he was transferred to Akita Prison in Akita City. Now if Shiratori thought that things couldn’t get worse than the treatment at Aomori Prison, he was in for a shock.
The guards at Akita Prison had heard all about his escape from Aomori and were determined to make an example out of him so that no one would ever dream of trying to escape. Each day Shiratori would endure the worst beatings of his life, he was forced to partake in extreme manual labor. He had no bed, just the freezing hard concrete floor, he bitterly missed his uncomfortable bed at Aomori prison. His time at Aomori felt as if he were there on vacation as opposed to his stay at Akita Prison. However out of all the pain, he endured there, there was one thing he hated the most, with every fiber of his body. Solitary confinement.
Unlike the other prisoners sent to solitary confinement, Shiratori had a specially made confinement cell for him alone and no one else. The room was incredibly small with a high ceiling, giving the feeling of being trapped in a dark hole. There was only one window, placed on the ceiling above that only let in a minimal amount of light if any. What was most peculiar about Shiratori’s solitary confinement cell is that the walls were made up of copper sheets, so smooth that there was no possible way for him to escape. To top it all off he remained handcuffed at all times when confined to the cell, where he would sit in miserable silence for days on end. They were determined not to let him escape again!
Life at Akita prison was bleak for Shiratori, sometimes he likened it to hell. But there was one silver lining that kept him from offing himself. Kobayashi, the head guard, had taken pity on Shiratori and made sure that the beatings weren’t severe enough to kill him. At times he would check-in and see how Shiratori was. Shiratori appreciated this, for it was Kobayashi’s compassion that helped him find the will to escape again early in the summer of 1942.
It took him a couple of days to prepare his escape, and this time it was even more daring than the last. What the guards had completely forgotten was that he was a master lockpicker and the cuffs they placed on him during solitary confinement were taken off as soon as they closed the door behind him. While there were many different methods on how to pick a lock, he used his favorite. One morning while completing manual labor Shiratori had found himself a piece of wire and just like that he had a plan.
Each time the guards threw him into confinement he welcomed it, for the moment they shut the door he unlocked his cuffs and began to climb the walls. This next part is rather amazing.
To climb the smooth copper walls designed for no climbing, Shiratori would place his palms and soles on the wall and climb, like a lizard up the copper walls till he reached the window. The window had been shut, no surprise there, but he had noticed that the wood around the frame had begun to rot. So, night after night he would climb up and chip away at the rotten wood before returning to the floor with his hands cuffed and ready for the guards. This took him a couple of months before finally, the window would open smoothly. The most important part of his plan was to choose the right day to escape.
Opportunity presented itself that night in June, a storm had raged on outside and would cover the sound of his footsteps on the roof. By morning he was gone and when the guards opened the cell door, they were amazed. He had disappeared, but how? They could not believe it; the man had climbed the supposedly unclimbable walls. He had escaped yet again!
If you thought that Shiratori’s story ended here, think again. After being on the run for nearly three months, Shiratori was tired. He was tired of always looking over his shoulder, tired of scavenging for food and money, and so he did something drastic. On June 18 Shiratori arrives at head guard Kobayashi’s house, who was very surprised to see the escaped prisoner on his doorstep, looking worse for wear. Curious, he invited Shiratori inside and offered him food and clean clothes. What Shiratori told him next stunned him.
Within the three months of freedom he had, Shiratori explained that he had come to the decision to hand himself over to the justice department. He explained that the only reason he had even escaped from prison was because of the inhuman treatment in the Japanese penal system. He wanted to campaign for reform, and he needed Kobayashi to vouch for him, give him credibility. In his mind, the only way he would ever truly get his freedom and be with his family was to win a civil suit.
However, things did not pan out how Shiratori would have liked, while he excused himself to use the toilet Kobayashi instantly rang the police. So, for the third time, Shiratori was arrested.
By now the Japanese courts had had enough of him and added another three years onto his current life sentence. Feeling betrayed and hurt by Kobayashi’s actions, Shiratori politely requested to be moved to a prison in Tokyo, he explained that he would prefer a warmer climate and that his body could no longer handle the cold weather. The judge denied this request; obviously, he would. Shiratori was a fugitive, and his actions made a mockery of prisons across Japan. The judge was angry and so in turn Shiratori was transferred to Abashiri Prison in the northernmost part of Japan, where it was known as a wintery hellhole. During winter the inside temperature dropped to below freezing, even inside the cells. Abashiri was no normal prison either, it was reserved for the worst criminals and so far, no prisoner had escaped before, of course, they hadn’t met Shiratori yet.
Shiratori’s arrival to his new prison was not a happy one, for he felt the bitter cold instantly, the blood freezing in his veins underneath his summer clothing. The beatings he endured were nothing compared to the bitter cold he faced during his stay, sometimes it got so cold that his Miso soup and soy sauce would freeze up completely, the only to eat it was like a popsicle. Not that the guards cared. They had taken a disliking to him. Perhaps it was because of the cold, or he had grown desperate, but one extra cold day Shiratori had tried to run from the guards. He didn’t know why he did it, he just did. Feeling brave he boldly proclaimed that no chains could hold him and much to the amazement of the guards, he began to tear the chains on his handcuffs apart. The guards took a step back in silence, his strength both scared and shocked them.
Unfortunately, this did nothing to help Shiratori’s reputation as an escape artist. This just helped the guards add another skill onto his profile, they now had another trick of his to look out for. In fact, they felt so confident that they had finally figured him out that they built him a specialized cell.
They were 100% sure that it was “Shiratori Proof.”
The cell was made of steel so that nothing would rot, even his handcuffs were made of steel. All openings were smaller than his body so that there was no way he would be able to squeeze through, or so they thought. In a final attempt to make sure he could not escape; they cuffed his hands behind his back and his legs together. The cuffs weighed at least 20kg and it wasn’t long before he had trouble standing. With the combination of extreme cold and a lack of personal hygiene, Shiratori noticed with horror that his wounds weren’t healing, and maggots had taken up residence inside. As they reached midwinter the bones under Shiratori’s clothes began poking through. It seems in an attempt to weaken him the guards had cut down his food supplies to the bare minimum.
Shiratori was sure that he was dying and there was no way out.
How he survived until spring was a miracle and slowly as the sun came out, so did the strength in his body come back, he felt revived, motivated, ambitious. The great escape had started. Again.
Each day that the guards delivered his Miso soup he ate a bite or two but dribbled most of it onto the cuffs on his hands and feet, as well as the steel inspection window his food was passed through. He had noticed that the salt in the soup and soy sauce oxidized the steel and caused rust. With nothing else but time and patience on his hands, Shiratori had done this every day for 6 months until the screws had completely fallen away. There was just one challenge left, one that the guards anticipated and prepared for, the opening size of the inspection window. Even after all the weight he had lost, his body was still too big to fit through. But did this stop him? Of course not. At this point even we’re wondering if this guy doesn’t have superpowers. What Shiratori failed to mention to the guards was that he could dislocate his body parts at will.
To fit through the small opening, he quickly dislocated his shoulders and maneuvered his way through the window as if his body was made of rubber. From then on it was easy to escape thanks to a broken window on the roof. When morning came, the guards were astonished to find sitting on the futon his 20kg cuffs, and as if to say F YOU, his neatly folded uniform. They could not believe it, Shiratori had escaped again!
Although life on the run was not any better, for 2 years he lived in an abandoned mine on the edge of the mountainside, hidden in the wilderness, he had adopted a solitary lifestyle that consisted of foraging and hunting, like his ancestors once did 1000 years before. He lived off different berries and nuts, he had even learned how to catch fish from the nearby river by studying how the native bears would do it. He eventually got tired of living alone, this wasn’t how he wanted to live his life any longer and made his way down the mountainside to a nearby village and was shocked at what he saw. The streets were filled with people walking around, signs written in English were displayed everywhere. What was even more surprising for him to see was the number of young Japanese women walking around with American soldiers. It felt like he had emerged into a whole new world, so different from the last. In the years that he was locked up, the Americans had one the war in Japan in 1945. This was good news for him as he believed that the manhunt for him had stopped, and he could come out of hiding. What he didn’t know was that the prison guards had laughed when they heard he had escaped, they believed him to be long dead by now, killed off by the harsh wilderness and punishing winters.
Unfortunately, his good fortune only lasted for another 50 days. He had traveled to the outskirts of the city of Sapporo and was on the brink of starvation when he came across a field of tomatoes. Desperate from hunger, he plucked one big tomato off the plant and was immediately spotted by the owner of the crops. Thinking he was a local thief the farmer approached Shiratori where an argument broke out between the two. It was not Shiratori’s intention to harm the farmer, however, a scuffle broke out and the farmer was stabbed accidentally and bled to death.
Again, Shiratori was arrested, poor guy! Because of the previous escapes and recent murder, Shiratori was sentenced to death. The Court of Sapporo wanted him dead, in fact, we’re pretty sure all of Japan’s courts wanted him out of their hair by now! He was becoming more trouble than he was worth.
While he awaited his execution date, Shiratori was sent to Sapporo Prison and was placed under 24/7 surveillance with six guards who watched his every move. Even all doors and walls were reinforced, any openings in the cell were smaller than the size of his skull. There was no possible way he could dislocate his skull to escape. Judging by his tired and aging appearance the guards could see he was not capable of climbing out of the cell.
But Shiratori was a cunning man and still had a few tricks left up his sleeve. He made sure to always look up as if he was sizing up the window and ceiling. By constantly looking up and feigning interest, he had conditioned the guards to also look up as they thought he was plotting an escape that way. They were so concerned that they reinforced the skylight further, making one fatal error. They forgot about the floor. All the time they had been looking up, Shiratori had been loosening the floorboards under his futon and using cutlery, dug a tunnel. The guards hadn’t noticed the tunnel as he would place like floorboards under his blankets, fooling them into thinking he was sleeping, just like his escape back at Aomori Prison.
At this point, you’re most likely waiting for me to tell you that he lived happily ever after, but you should know better by now.
One year later in 1948, Shiratori met a policeman smoking in the streets of Kotoni, he was surprised and emotionally moved that the policeman had been so kind and offered him a cigarette. This kindness overwhelmed Shiratori, who was so used to pain and abuse and feeling exhausted, he explained to the policeman who he was and how he had escaped four times. He was arrested again. But this time he didn’t regret it. He was tired.
Luckily for him the courts looked favorably towards him, after all in all four escapes he didn’t harm anyone, and the penal system had changed over the years. They took into consideration the terrible abuse he faced in the prison and his claims that he killed the farmer in self-defense. After much deliberation, they agreed to lower his sentence to 20 years and had even granted him that transfer to Tokyo Prison.
Finally, Shiratori was at peace, with the warmer weather, better food and no longer having to worry about being abused, Shiratori accepted his sentence. The 20 years flew by for him, and he even became a model prisoner. So much so that he was let out in 1961, six years earlier for good behavior.
Shiratori was now officially a free man, and he couldn’t be happier. This story has a surprisingly happy ending, for Shiratori went and met up with his daughter in Aomori and lived a happy, crime-free life until 1979 where he passed away from a heart attack. There is even a memorial to him at the Abashiri Prison Museum, where you will find a wax figure of him climbing the copper walls of his cell.
Even to this day Shiratori is considered Japan’s greatest anti-hero and let his story be a lesson to prison guards around the world to always look under the blankets!