The Aosawa Murders

Riku Onda

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Aosawa Murders, by Riku Onda, and translated by Alison Watts. At a party hosted by a wealthy physician, seventeen guests die of cyanide poisoning. There is one survivor, and an obvious suspect, who commits suicide. As narratives conflict and the truth grows colder, several locals take it upon themselves to untangle the impossible crime.

I don’t have any great ambitions for myself. It’s enough for me if the three of us can lead safe, healthy lives. A peaceful life is best. But such a modest ambition is becoming more and more difficult to achieve. People may try to live quiet, retiring lives, but things can happen. They might get caught up in a crime, or ill from food additives. The way society works or businesses operate can change in a flash, and even as you wish things would stay the same, a giant wave engulfs everything. It’s tragic when people think the wave won’t reach them but get swept away by it anyway. The wave takes everything with it, you hurt all over, and you’re left holding on to nothing.

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I wasn’t swept away by the wave. It simply lapped at my feet. That was the extent of it. Even so, up until I wrote The Forgotten Festival I could see its white foam in the depths of night and could not escape its persistent roar.

After the book came out I received a lot of correspondence. Many letters were critical, of course, and some were even threatening. But most were insightful and sympathetic. As I read them, I could hear the bewilderment and doubts of the writers. I sensed their struggle to process the experience of being caught up in the wave resonating from between the lines. Those letters confirmed my feeling that my work was done with this one book.

No, I don’t mean that. It was anything but over, but the weight of those letters was more than enough to be burdened with in one lifetime.

That’s the famous two-legged Kotoji stone lantern. It’s shaped like the bridge of a koto.

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This particular scene often appears in travel brochures and on postcards.

The pines are wrapped up in winter to protect them against the snow. Yukitsuri, it’s called. It’s very beautiful, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Bundled cones of radiant lines point skywards with a geometric beauty.

There’s a concentration of spectacular pines and unusual trees in this area. Isn’t the view magnificent?

This garden is more like a backgammon board than a theme park. Square one is the spindle tree slope. Then there’s the cherry tree garden, and a curving river, and a bridge. I wonder where upstream is?

You’re a curious person too, aren’t you? What do you want to know?

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I wrote down in the book everything I learned from my research. Frankly speaking, anyone who’s interested in that book – which literally has been forgotten—must have time on their hands. Even if I do say so myself as the author.

It’s all very much over and done with now. The suspect, although dead, was charged. A lot was never made clear, but it’s all in the past. The investigation finished a long time ago. Although I use the word research, all I did was listen to people connected with the case talk about their memories.

That’s the only approach I could think of, and realistically speaking, all I was able to do.

That said, I can see in retrospect how rash, insensitive and heedless I was.

The only reason I could do it was because I was a foolish university student who had the time. People still remembered my older brothers and me, and I guess my earnestness and general ineptness must have worked to my advantage. Ten years had passed by then, which I think had given people enough time to put some distance between them- selves and events. Enough, even, for some of them to recall that period with nostalgia.

But by then the affair was old news, forgotten by the world. Others, however, wished they could forget about it, but were too afraid to.

Many of the people I interviewed told me that at the time they had felt extremely pressured by the media and curiosity seekers when all they wanted was to be left alone. But over time they had become more able to look back and reflect on everything that had happened. Some people told me that the more time passed the more they felt the need to talk things over again and express their opinions. But by then the affair was old news, forgotten by the world. Others, however, wished they could forget about it, but were too afraid to.

So, you see, my timing was good—I think that’s what it came down to in the end – and was a big reason why I was able to write the book.

I was lucky. If there’s such a thing as fate, then it was in my favour that summer during my fourth year of university. Yes, that’s right. At first it was supposed to be a substitute for my graduation thesis. I was studying marketing and hit on the idea of researching different interview and survey techniques to see what difference they made to the volume of information that could be obtained and the quality of that information.

Why did I think about researching an event from my childhood? I don’t even remember what set me off now. But it was entirely unrelated to marketing.

Once I’d decided to do it, though, I never wavered. I persuaded friends to help me, I wrote letters to people with connections, I made phone calls, and from May until September that year I came here four times to interview people. Some people I saw every visit and others only once.

It was surprisingly effective to visit regularly with intervals in between. Sometimes my interviewees were too nervous to find the right words, even if they were willing. But often after I left they recalled things. And with repeated visits their memories started to come back. Some people said almost nothing to my face but would always send me a letter afterwards.

That summer was special.

The summer that it happened, and the summer I spent coming to this city to interview people connected with it, are joined in my mind.

I associate both summers with the colour white. White summers, white days. I’m sure I was in an abnormally fever- ish state during both.

By the time I’d finished listening to everybody, I was filled with their words. I couldn’t even begin to think about a graduation thesis any more. When I started to write I felt possessed. I didn’t know if I was writing a novel, or what it was.

If anything, it was after I finished writing that things got complicated. Unfortunately I’d written something that wasn’t even remotely close to what a graduation thesis should be. It had taken me all summer,  and I’d poured  all my energy into it. So I was horrified when the reality of my position hit me. But I didn’t have the time or energy to write another thesis.

At some point, however, my tutorial group found out about this strange document I’d been obsessed with writing, and then my professor got wind of it, and after reading he recommended I turn it into a thesis. Then, to my surprise, someone at a publishing company read it too—my professor’s former student. And from there it quickly progressed into becoming a book.

Thinking back, it seems like a dream now. If that hadn’t happened, you and I wouldn’t be here together now. It was fate.

The thing that stuck in my mind most at the time was all the grown-ups saying it reminded them of the Teigin Incident. I didn’t know about that as a child. It wasn’t until I studied Japanese history in high school that I finally understood what they were referring to. Teachers are hard-pressed to squeeze in everything up to the Second World War into the curriculum for Japanese history, so post-war history tends to get short shrift, and is something of a blind spot, don’t you think? Personally, I prefer post-war history myself, I read a lot about it.

There are a few similarities to the Teigin Incident, but not much of significance, in my opinion. One day a man came along and gave a large group of people poison to drink—that’s the sum of it.

The Teigin Incident occurred more than twenty years earlier, soon after the war ended, during the Allied Occupation. A man calling himself a doctor arrived at a branch of the Imperial Bank and said that he had been ordered by the Occupation forces to carry out inoculations because of an outbreak of dysentery. He then distributed what he said was an oral vaccine and asked everyone present to drink it. Dysentery is a dated word now, but it was a common occur- rence then. The so-called vaccine was in fact deadly poison and while the victims writhed in agony, the man made off with money from the bank. Twelve out of the sixteen people who drank the poison died.

A large group of people all poisoned at once. I suppose that similarity was striking. The post-war era was still fresh in the memory of the adults around me during my childhood. This incident was carried out in a similar fashion. That day, celebrations were being held for two auspicious birthdays: the sixtieth of the head of the family—the doctor—and the grandmother’s eighty-eighth. Plus one of the grandsons had a birthday too. Everybody in the neighbourhood knew three generations in that family shared the same birthday. That’s why nobody was suspicious of sake being delivered as a gift. The sender’s name was given as a friend of the doctor, who lived in another region, and the delivery included soft drinks for the children. Such thoughtfulness made an impression, and of course nobody dreamed that it was all poisoned. The sake and soft drink were shared between everybody in the house for a toast.

The result was tragic. Neighbours, and a tradesman who happened to be there at the time, were also victims. Seventeen people died altogether, six of them children. There were three children in the family, so children from around the neighbourhood had come to play at the house that day.

Junji had a narrow escape. As you may know, he was always restless, someone who can never keep still, which was lucky for him that day. He was given some of the soft drink but came home without having any because he was so excited by the celebrations that he wanted to fetch me and my other older brother to go back with him and have some too.

The three of us arrived at the house to discover a scene from hell. People were scattered everywhere, writhing in agony. At first, we didn’t realize they were in pain, because we couldn’t comprehend what we were seeing. It looked like they might have been dancing about in celebration. But there was also vomit everywhere, and a sickly, sour smell drifting through the front entrance.

It was a long time before we could get that stench out of our nostrils. Just the sight of a soft drink was enough to bring back the smell for my brother, and he couldn’t drink any for a long time afterwards.

My eldest brother was the first to realize something was wrong and ran straight for the police. Junji and I were ter- rified, and we ran back home to tell our mother.

In no time a huge commotion began.

The road outside the house, which was quite narrow, was blocked with ambulances and police cars, and a huge crowd of curious spectators gathered. That alone was almost like a festival crowd. We stayed inside, close to our mother, while outside the whole neighbourhood was in uproar.   It sounded like the roar of the ocean, and I remember feeling that our house was like a boat. I had this vision  of us floating through the crowd, drifting off into the distance.

Have you ever heard it said that in extraordinary circumstances the air changes colour?

Well, that day the air seemed to separate into two layers. A murky layer that hung over the floor, and another layer closer to the ceiling that sparkled, hard and clear. The air around our feet felt heavy and stagnant, but higher up it was as though the air was being sucked upwards by someone way up high. I really can’t explain it.

It was a day like today, towards the end of summer.

Humid, with no wind.

But summer lingered long after that day. The summer dragged on for us, and for everybody in the city that year.

Oh, careful. Look, see the fishing line strung out in a grid, like a go board.

It’s to protect the moss. That’s moss, not grass. Isn’t it superb? That fishing line must keep the birds away, too. I expect it prevents large birds from landing there.


From The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bitter Lemon. Copyright © 2020 by Riku Onda.

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