Truth gets trampled by good stories

Why did construction worker Takao Shirasaka bombard police in Hyogo with 1,772 prank calls in the space of five days?

by Barry Brophy and Cai Evans

And why did the cops take 1,772 calls before deciding that someone was pulling their chain? We don’t know. And we don’t know why, or even if, the following people did these strange things, but heaven forbid we’d let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

Marathon man

In 1981, the Daily Mail newspaper in Britain regaled readers with the inspiring yet painful tale of Japanese long-distance runner Kimo Nakajimi, who traveled to the U.K. to take part in the London Marathon.

A translation error in Nakajimi’s application documents left him under the impression that he had to run for 26 days, not 26 miles. A fortnight after the race took place, Nakajimi was still out pounding the streets of England, determined to finish the race and ignoring the heartfelt appeals of locals to stop.

Tim Bryant, the import director who took responsibility for the translation error, suggested that Nakajimi seemed “to be taking this marathon to be something like the very long races they have over there in Japan.”


Accompanying a well-known e-mail circulating recently was an explanation that: “What you see are not actually see-thru skirts but prints on the skirts to make it look as if panties are visible. It is the rage in Japan.”

While your average middle-aged bookstore employee (see picture) would be unlikely to conform to this risque trend, this “rage,” which, upon very close inspection is clearly a hoax, attained a startling degree of credibility among the ex-pat community in Japan and their jealous friends at home and was a worthy successor to the legendary “breast scarf” phenomenon (real) of the 1990s.

Aside from the obvious suspicion that this was a case of wishful thinking, one of these same expats huffed that he’d “seen a lot stranger.”

Santa on Calvary

Showing great initiative, if not a complete grasp of the fine line between the religious and marketing aspects of Christmas, Japanese department stores based in Tokyo and Kyoto began, shortly after World War II, to display effigies of a smiling Santa Claus being crucified.

The shopkeeper’s understanding was that there was “a guy in a white beard and a red suit, and they knew there was a Christian angle . . . the result was little Santa Clauses on crucifixes,” the Washington Post quoted one Japanese executive as saying in a 1995 article on the tale.

However, stories about the “tradition” date back much further, at least to the time when foreign correspondents began to realize that column inches could be filled with any old rubbish about Japan that their editors at home would never be able to check.

Idle hands get busy

Shinichi Fujimura’s uncanny ability to unearth important artifacts ensured that he was known in archaeological circles as “the divine digger” and “God’s hand.”

While serving as vice chairman of the Tohoku Paleolithic Culture Research Institute, however, Fujimura admitted that he had faked virtually all his discoveries, but hinted that darker forces may have been at work.

Confronted by a Mainichi Shimbun videotape showing him planting stoneware pieces at an excavation site, Fujimura confessed that, while operating under the influence of Satan himself, he had buried 61 out of 65 artifacts at the Kami-Takamori dig in Miyagi, famous as the oldest Early Paleolithic site in Japan.

“The Devil made me do it,” he explained.

One Fujimura exclusive find, which predated evidence of symbolic cognition among early man in Europe and Africa, nearly rewrote the textbook on human evolution. Except that Fujimura found nothing of the sort.

So immersed in his deception was Fujimura, that he once took reporters straight from a briefing to an archaeological dig where he made another amazing discovery on the spot.

A combustible brew

Hydrogen beer was central to a three-way lawsuit involving the Tike-Take karaoke bar, the Asaka Beer Corporation and salaryman Toshira Otoma, who accidentally set fire to his innards during a rowdy karaoke night.

Replacing the carbon dioxide in their beer with more environmentally friendly hydrogen, Asaka found that their Suiso brew was extremely popular in karaoke bars, where the lighter gas allowed “chic urbanites” to hit previously unattainable high notes. Hydrogen being flammable, it also sparked a craze for fire-breathing, using a lit cigarette as an ignition source, while belting out classic tunes.

Fire-belching contests and Mr. Otoma’s internal combustion were a natural progression.

Or so it was claimed in an (apparently bogus) Associated Press story doing the usual rounds on e-mail and the Internet. The story was eventually picked up by Britain’s Private Eye magazine and printed as the truth.

Frogmen have landed

Shinichi Torii of Kanagawa Prefecture took domestic angst to a new level in January 2002 when he reacted to a quarrel with his wife by telling authorities that Japan had been invaded by a gang of mysterious frogmen.

Torii telephoned the regional coast guard headquarters on the night of Jan. 6 and told them he had seen five or six people wearing wet suits emerge from a “cylindrical object” and land on Enoshima before climbing a hill and disappearing.

The coast guard reportedly spent more than 10 million yen in a search operation triggered by the prank call, dispatching 17 vessels, launching 10 aircraft sorties and mobilizing some 380 service personnel.

Torii later admitted that he had invented the story in a bid to cheer himself up after becoming “vexed” following a domestic argument. and “agreed” to pay 1.3 million yen in damages.

The loot of Luzon

When Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita stumbled out of the Philippines jungles in September 1945 and laid down his arms at the feet of the advancing U.S. military, he became the corner stone of one of the most enduring of Japanese World War II legends — the stashing of billions of dollars worth of gold and other assorted loot gathered from throughout the country’s Asian colonies and earmarked for the rebuilding of a shattered postwar Japan.

The legend generally describes how, from the late 1930s, Japanese forces in Manchuria and China, pillaged colonized territories and stripped them of all available precious metals and jewels. The booty was then sent to the Philippines for safekeeping.

Yamashita was sent to the Philippines in December 1944 and entrusted by Emperor Hirohito himself with the task of hiding the precious cargo in a maze of booby-trapped tunnels dug into the Philippines jungles.

The general chose the island of Luzon as the safest place to store the Asian bounty, which, we can reveal, either still sits in a mine-ridden, gas-drenched subterranean labyrinth, was funneled back to Tokyo after the war and used to underpin Japan’s astonishing post-war economic growth, or never existed at all.

Bonsai kitten

“This site is horrible! You should go into a mental hospital! You son of a bitch! I’ll do my best to shut down this site and your disgusting hobby!”

Such was the typically measured reaction (in this case a mail sent to the site’s Webmaster) to Bonsai Kitten, an enterprise devoted to the “lost Eastern art” of stuffing kittens into glass jars, sticking a tube up their backsides and waiting for the creatures’ bone and tissue to (mal)form into a compact, “more aesthetically pleasing” rectangular shape.

The work of a mischievous group of students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the site enraged animal rights activists and cat-loving Joe Publics, who instituted a global campaign to have the site, attributed in many cases to a Japanese man living in New York, removed from Web servers. Newspapers, including this one, were contacted, petitions circulated, and the Boston field office of the FBI called in to put an end to custom-made kitties.

As it began to dawn on activists that the site was a hoax, they changed tack and, irony-free, denounced the site’s potential to inspire “copycat” mutilation.

Interestingly, no such campaign was launched in response to a picture of what appears to be a “Bonsai Man” on the site.

A royal rumpus

When Yasuyuki Kitani, AKA Prince Satohito Arisugawa, a “successor to a former imperial family,” and his “bride” Harumi Sakamoto, managed to extract over 12 million yen in cash and wedding gifts from a group of wealthy guests that they’d never met before, he was not the first to pass himself of as Japanese royalty in order to make a few yen. But he was certainly one of the boldest.

Over 350 people, some drawn from the world of showbusiness, attended “Prince Arisugawa’s celebration dinner banquet” in April.

Unbeknown to the guests, however, was that the Arisugawa family of which Kitano had been claiming to be a descendant for the previous 20-odd years has been defunct since 1913.

Kitano was arrested on suspicion of fraud (accepting gifts without registering the marriage, not for impersonating royalty). He remained defiant, arguing: “We are royals; we do not need to register the marriage.”

Kitano, a ex-temple janitor, security guard, and the son of a Kyoto greengrocer, later admitted: “I am not of royal blood.”