Thursday, 22 October 2015

A famous murder from the Meiji era

I like online newspaper archives. I’ve passed many Sunday mornings, typing words at random into the search engines of various archives to see what comes up in reply. Often it is some forgotten gem of a story which was famous for a few days, before fading out of the public view.

The only free Japanese newspaper archive I know of is pretty hard to use without a solid knowledge of kanji, and the type of stories generally covered by Japanese papers tend to be quite dry and boring.

So it’s lucky, then, that the Internet Archive has digitised the Japan Daily Mail (or Weekly Mail). This was an English language newspaper based in Japan during the Meiji era aimed at foreigners living in Japan.

It's a fascinating look into Japanese society as seen through the eyes of new arrivals trying to make sense of it all. Some copies have an index at the front which is great for finding interesting stories. On page four of this issue, for example, tells the story behind a murder trial that gripped Japan. I’ll summarise it here:

Nishigori Takekiyo, 39, was an art connoisseur and was a former vassal to the wealthy Soma clan.

In 1877, while Nishigori was living in Tokyo, Viscount Soma Masatane started showing signs of insanity. His condition worsened until June 1879 when he was given a special room in the family mansion and treated as a patient, as well as receiving treatment from a lunatic asylum and a hospital in Hongo.

Nishigori believed that the Viscount wasn’t ill, but the victim of a conspiracy. He believed that the Viscount’s stewards and the Viscount’s father’s mistress had planned this in order to steal his property.

During 1882-83, Nishigori tried several times to visit the Viscount but was refused. He also repeatedly sent medical men to try and gain access. However, when this all failed, he sued three of the stewards Shiga Naomichi, Ishikawa Eisho, and Tomita Fukazo for illegal imprisonment.

This was thrown out of court so, in 1884, he used a letter of attorney to get the case looked at again. Unfortunately, it was discovered that Nishigori had forged this letter and the case ended in his own conviction, with a prison sentence of a month.

Rather than shake his convictions, this all seemed to have made him even more determined. In 1887 he kidnapped the Viscount from a lunatic asylum and took him first to a friend’s house and then on a trip around neighbouring prefectures.

The Soma family tracked him down and had him arrested (another one month sentence) but by now Viscount Soma had given Nishigori complete power of attorney. Using this, Nishigori kept filing civil cases against the Soma family.

Then, in 1892, one case had reached a point where the Viscount himself need to go to court to testify. The summons arrived on February 19th 1892 (asking for his attendance on March 3rd) and on the night of the 19th, the Viscount fell ill. He died on the 22nd.

Nishigori believed the Viscount had been poisoned. A belief made stronger when the family refused an autopsy. Then the Viscount’s estate was given solely to one son, Masatane, while the other son, Hidetane (still a child), was frozen out.

Nishigori asked a friend of his, a judge named Yamaguchi, for his opinion on the matter and the judge said he believed Nishigori was right. Encouraged by this, Nishigori began to put together a case regarding the poisoning and aspects of Hidetane’s succession.

The judge, Yamaguchi, thought that it was wiser to persue the poisoning case. He suggested that if Nishigori sent some documents to the court denouncing the Soma family this would cause enough of a sensation to get the case heard.

Nishigori did this, writing up a fictional version of the murder and bribery of medical practioners as if it were a confession from one of the accomplices.

He posted it to the court on June 28th and it caused a sensation when it was published in a newspaper soon after. Nishigori decided to press forward by filing a charge for murder. He hired a lawyer, Okano Kan, who was convinced to take the case by the confession.

The preliminary hearings were taken by a close friend of Yamaguchi, Judge Okada Seikyo. Yamaguchi himself helped with the examination of some witnesses and was able to pass on information to Nishigori, who could then use that in his case. Nishigori also continued to spread false stories about the Soma clan.

However, despite all this, no actual evidence of murder was forthcoming. Yamaguchi suggested to Nishigori it would be easier to pursue a lesser charge of illegal imprisonment leading to death. Nishigori agreed, but in the end the court threw out even this case.

Throughout this time Judge Yamaguchi had been slowly obtaining money from Nishigori. A few hundred yen here and there, as well as 5,000 yen in September 1893. And while he was extorting from Nishigori, he was in secret contact with the Soma family! Yamaguchi’s brother-in-law knew a high-ranking member of the clan, and they had asked Yamaguchi to help with their case. A request to which he agreed, promising to keep a close eye on Nishigori’s actions. However, his relationship with the Soma clan was not as profitable as with Nishigori.

Once Nishigori’s case collapsed, he and his accomplices were arrested. But even while the preliminary hearing for this case was in progress, Judge Yamaguchi was named in an entirely different case for blackmail! What a character.

This case was famous enough to have been written about in British newspapers at the time and according to this page, twenty books about it were written in one year (1892). Nishigori’s own book sold well, and made him a more sympathetic character: a loyal servant doing what he thought was right.

In the end, according to the Birmingham Daily Post for Wednesday 23rd May 1894, Nishigori was sentenced to four years in jail, while Yamaguchi was given five.

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