By Shōko Egawa, Translated from Japanese by David Boyd
Forthcoming in Words Without Borders, December 2019
At the border between Mie and Nara prefectures is an area called Kuzuo.
Kuzuo had once been a single village, but it was split in two when Japan’s feudal domains came to an end during the Meiji period. The part of Kuzuo now located in Mie is called Nabari. It’s also known as Iga Kuzuo. Across the border, in Nara, the village is a part of Yamazoemura. Some people call it Yamato Kuzuo.
March 28, 1961.
At this time, Iga Kuzuo had eighteen homes and Yamato Kuzuo had seven. Combined, the two villages had 140 residents, mostly farmers.
It was 7 p.m. and the sun had already gone down. On any other day, the villagers would have been at home, enjoying the evening with their families.
But this was a special day. It was the annual meeting of the Better Life Club at the Kuzuo Community Center.
The club was made up of residents from both Iga and Yamato. Its main function was to maintain good relations in the villages. After all, they had once been a single town. The club was also known as Everyone’s Club—a nod to the hopeful spirit at its core.
Among other activities, the club had a regular lottery. Winning families used the money they received to improve their lives however they saw fit, buying new appliances or renovating their kitchens or bathrooms. Thanks in no small part to this club, members really did lead better lives. Throughout the area, numerous houses now had tiled bathrooms. More homes had fridges than not.
“The smallest village with the brightest future”—that was Kuzuo’s motto.
The club’s general meeting was held every year toward the end of March. On that day, members elected club officials, discussed a few matters, then held a modest banquet. In the early 1960s, such diversions were few and far between. For the people of Kuzuo, especially the women, this gathering was a truly special occasion, and not to be missed.
On the day of the meeting, every woman in the club got an early start making dinner for her children and parents. Once their responsibilities at home were squared away, the women put on lipstick and donned their best kimonos, then happily set off for the community center.
The community center sat on a hill overlooking Nabari Kuzuo. It had formerly been a graveyard and a temple called Zōfukuji. For this reason, locals often called the community center “the Temple.” Before the annual meeting, they removed the partitions between two of the center’s rooms to create space for the low tables.
Within an hour, the election and treasurer’s report had ended; it was time for the party to begin.
Bottles of sake were opened and warmed in teakettles. Once the sake was hot, the men filled each other’s cups. The women shared a large bottle of wine, passing it around the room. There was plenty of food. In addition to the boxes at every setting filled with several kinds of fish, tofu, beans, konbu rolls, and vegetables, the women also brought large plates with vegetables and other side dishes they had prepared at home.
The former chairman, Matsuo Ōishi, made the toast.
“Here’s to all of you. I wish I could have done more for you as chairman, but it was a great year, all thanks to you. Ōmori, best of luck as our new chairman. And, finally, here’s to the club and the health of its members.”
All thirty-two members in attendance raised their cups. It was a late dinner, and everyone had quite an appetite. As soon as the toast was over, they started eating and drinking.
It all began about the time that the men and women were finishing their first drinks.
Something was wrong with Miyoko Nagasaki. With her face contorted, she got up and hurried out of the room. One seat over, Shōko Ōishi grabbed her belly and fell against the woman on her other side, Chizuko Okunishi.
“My tongue, my tongue . . .” she said, burying her face in Chizuko’s lap.
“Are you OK?”
At first, the men made jokes, but as every woman in the room began to twitch, the laughter stopped. Within seconds, it was clear that most of the women were in incredible pain.
Shōko still in her lap, Chizuko suddenly collapsed.
Kei Niiya and Yukiko Kida were next.
“Shōko . . . Shōko!”
Tokiko Sakurai tried to help her neighbor, but soon her own pain was too much to bear.
“Something’s wrong,” she said. “Shizuko, take my place.”
Shizuko Uemura was standing across the way. She was about to step over the table, but unable to breathe, she fainted before she made it across.
“Shōko? Can you hear me? What’s going on?”
Kuniko Ōmori had no stomach for wine. She ran over, but Shōko wouldn’t respond to her questions. Shōko’s face was covered in sweat, some sort of mucus dripping from her dry lips.
“Hey, does this smell OK to you?”
Harue Nagata held the wine up to her nose, then grimaced.
“Let me see.”
Tamotsu Uemura grabbed Harue’s cup and took a small sip. There was nothing odd about it. It looked, smelled, and even tasted like ordinary white wine.
“It seems fine to me. Here, take a sip.”
Uemura passed Harue’s cup to Susumu Ōmori, who touched it to his lips and drank what little wine was left.
“Seems fine to me.”
The local official Yūichirō Hisada smelled the wine like the others, then took a mouthful. He was certain it was safe, but spat the liquid into the nearby hibachi just the same.
In the meantime, Harue Nagata was doubled over and clutching her belly. Tokiko Sakurai and Makiko Hanamura had lost feeling in their mouths. They were seized by chills and extreme nausea. The men looked on in helpless horror as seventeen of the twenty women present turned bright red and collapsed in pain.
Some men held their wives close and screamed their names, desperate to elicit some sort of response. Others left the community center to fetch family members. The room was covered in vomit and excrement. Some of the women were writhing in pain; others were completely motionless. Several tried to make it to the toilets but collapsed before they could. Other women had fallen in the hallway and by the door. Everyone else stood by, dumbfounded, unable to act.
Within minutes, the friendly atmosphere of the Better Life Club had evaporated. In its place was a horrifying scene—an image of hell.
* * *
The police first questioned Masaru Okunishi on March 29, 1961—one day after the incident.
At the time, they had no reason to suspect him of any wrongdoing. They were only following procedure, visiting the houses of all parties involved.
When Masaru spoke with the police, he acknowledged that he had brought the wine to the community center. During that interview, he also said:
“All the women collapsed within ten minutes of drinking the wine. That seems to be the only explanation—my wife and the other women were killed by something in the wine. It had to be some kind of poison.”
After that, the police took a greater interest in Masaru Okunishi. Although the interview was “voluntary,” he could hardly have turned them away. In the days that followed, a patrol car would pick him up every morning and drive him home again before nightfall.
Everyone in the village knew that Masaru had been having an affair with a local widow by the name of Yukiko Kida. When the police confronted Masaru about the rumor, he immediately denied it. The police knew he was lying, but they didn’t press the issue. The next day, however, when lead investigator Toshifumi Tsujii took over, the interrogation took an abrupt turn.
“You’re lying about Yukiko!”
Those were Tsujii’s first words.
Masaru broke under the pressure. He admitted that he had been cheating on his wife Chizuko—and that they had fought about it.
Through his neighbors, investigators had heard that Masaru’s family had been using an insecticide called tetraethyl pyrophosphate, also known as TEPP.
“You’ve been using TEPP in your fields, isn’t that right?”
“No, never. I bought some last summer but never used it.”
Meanwhile, Masaru tried to tell the police about the strained relationship between a couple of women in the village—a woman and her mother-in-law who had been at each other’s throats for some time.
“Funny you should mention that. People have been saying similar things about Yukiko and your wife, Chizuko. Like you said, she knew you’d been cheating. And maybe that’s why she poisoned the wine. Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“No, no—she couldn’t have.”
The interrogation dragged on for hours. As Tsujii continued, Masaru came to believe that Chizuko was their primary suspect.
There appeared to be no end to the questioning.
“Just so you know, you’re not going home tonight.”
“What about the others? What about Ōishi and Iwamura?”
“We sent them home a while ago, but you know something. We can’t let you go until we find out what it is.”
“No, please. My daughter’s starting elementary school this week. I need to get her ready for her first day. My wife is dead. I have to look after things around the house. I’ll come back tomorrow. Just let me go home.”
Masaru begged, but Tsujii remained firm. “You’re not going anywhere—not until you talk.”
Masaru buried his head in his hands. He remembered the rice polisher at home, full of water. If he didn’t empty it soon, the equipment would rust.
There was something else on his mind, too—something he didn’t want the police to know. Masaru had been stealing electricity. He knew it was wrong. That’s why he always made sure to put things back the way they were before someone came to read the meter.
The inspector was supposed to visit the next day. If Masaru didn’t get home that night, the theft would be discovered. Masaru knew he had to get home, no matter what.
At around 5 p.m., Masaru started to speak, hoping they’d release him if he did. His thoughts were vague and fragmentary. When there were gaps in his story, Tsujii helped him fill in the blanks.
The resulting testimony was this:
Yukiko Kida’s husband died last summer, leaving her alone with two children. I wanted to help, so I had her work with me. Soon, we became close. Then, last October, on the night of the fall festival, Yukiko and I went for a walk, just the two of us. My wife saw us and became jealous. After that, we started fighting. Chizuko said that she was going to leave me and go back to her parents . . . I tried telling my wife that nothing was going on, but she wouldn’t listen. At some point, I lost my temper and yelled back, “Fine! If you want to leave, then leave.” Then she looked right at me and said, “I’ll make sure you never see her again, then I’ll die. There won’t be anyone left—just you and the kids.” Then I said something I shouldn’t have. “Well, there’s a box of poison on the shelf . . .”
It was around 11 p.m. when Masaru finished.
“Listen, if Chizuko did it,” Tsujii told him, “you’re hardly innocent here. She did it because you were cheating. You’re going to have to take responsibility for what you’ve done.”
Masaru was silent. He thought about Tsujii’s words.
Maybe he’s right. If she did it, she did it out of jealousy. It’s my fault. I even told her where to find the poison. I need to take responsibility . . .
“Think about what this is going to do to your family. It’ll destroy them. Your mother and father are saying they’re going to kill themselves. The officer who just came back from the scene told me so. What do you think about that?”
Masaru believed everything the policeman said.
It’d be best for my family if I took responsibility . . . if I say I did it.
Then Masaru’s thoughts returned to the stolen electricity and the rice polisher full of water.
At that point, Tsujii got up and left the room. Masaru was alone with a sergeant by the name of Yamakawa. In Masaru’s eyes, Yamakawa seemed like the more reasonable officer. With Tsujii out of the room, Masaru tried explaining why he was desperate to get home. He told Yamakawa about the rice polisher—and about the electricity. “Please let me go home tonight.”
“We can’t do that. We can arrest you. If not for this, we’ve already got you for stealing power.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Come on, you know what I mean. Everything could go the way you want, as long as you cooperate. All you have to do is tell us what we need to know,” Yamakawa said as he stood up. “I’ll be right back.”
Masaru was left alone in the room.
I realized there were two ways things could go. I could either be arrested for stealing power or I could give the testimony they wanted me to give. [Masaru Okunishi’s letter to his lawyer]
Weighing his options, Masaru recalled the faces of his neighbors.
If I lie and tell the police that I did it, my neighbors will come forward with the truth . . . As long as they do that, everything will work out.
* * *
Before long, Tsujii and Yamakawa came back.
“Well, are you ready to tell us the truth?”
“So, did you do it?”
“Yes . . . It was me. I did it.”
From Rokunin-me no Giseisha. Published 1994 by Bungei Shunju. By arrangement with the publisher and author. Translation © 2019 by David Boyd. Published by Words Without Borders. All rights reserved.
Featured image from print of Ueno, Iga Province, by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858)