Archives detail '49 miscarriage of justice

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

News photo
For the record: Masayuki Ibe -
, a professor emeritus at Fukushima University, poses in front of the
school’s Matsukawa case archives. Below: Makoto Suzuki, a defendant in the case first sentenced to death
and then acquitted, is interviewed in November.

News photo

On Aug. 17, 1949, a train came off the tracks near Matsukawa Station in Fukushima Prefecture as a result of apparent sabotage. Several bolts connecting the tracks were loosened, and joint bars and spikes were pulled away.

The derailment left three crew members dead and led to the indictment of 20 labor union activists in the old Japanese National Railways and a local Toshiba Corp. factory.

Many were members of the Japanese Communist Party.

“We have archived around 100,000 documents on the incident, and we have 300 to 400 visitors here annually,” said Masayuki Ibe, a professor emeritus at Fukushima University who manages the Matsukawa Case Archives.

“Our work to organize the materials, including court documents and publications, is ongoing, and additional documents are still coming in.”

The defendants were accused of resorting to violence to fight company layoffs. The Fukushima District Court in December 1950 sentenced five to hang and five others to life in prison. The remaining 10 were also found guilty and given lesser sentences.

In the appellate trial, the Sendai High Court in December 1953 found 17 of them guilty, ruling four deserved to hang. The remaining three were acquitted.

The Matsukawa case was the third mysterious incident involving JNR in the summer of 1949 as the railway was laying off workers. In what is known as the Shimoyama incident, which occurred earlier, JNR President Sadanori Shimoyama was found dead in Tokyo, apparently run over by a JNR train. In the Mitaka case, an unmanned moving train at Mitaka Station in Tokyo derailed and killed six people.

Government officials and media organizations alleged these incidents had “a certain ideological background,” stirring public concern.

It was a time when communists and socialists who had been persecuted during the war years resumed their activities. Unions gained momentum and fought hard against management.

Public sentiment regarding the Matsukawa case gradually changed, however, in the face of criticism that the guilty verdicts were based mostly on coerced confessions of defendants during interrogations and on a sloppy investigation.

“While my husband was behind bars, I traveled nationwide to protest his innocence,” said Yae Suzuki, 88, whose husband, Makoto, 89, leader of the JNR union, was sentenced to hang by both the district and high courts.

Even lawyers who couldn’t care less about the JCP joined the defense team in the belief that the defendants had been wrongfully accused and were being railroaded.

Literary figures meanwhile released satirical tracts on the guilty verdicts. This was despite the fact that legal authorities were decrying criticism of court decisions, claiming it jeopardized judicial independence.

Amid these moves, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Sendai High Court, which in August 1961 acquitted every defendant.

The verdict was finalized two years later.

“The Matsukawa case showed that we, the people, are allowed and obliged to raise voices against judicial power to democratize it,” said Ibe at Fukushima University. “I think it is necessary not only to preserve records but also to open them to the public so we can learn their lessons.”

The university began collecting the case documents in 1984 after its campus was moved to its present location, only 2 km from the derailment site, and the archives were opened to the public four years later.

Matsukawa case-related events

Kyodo News

July 5, 1949 — Japanese National Railways President Sadanori Shimoyama is found dead in Tokyo, run over by a train.

July 15, 1949 — An unmanned train at Tokyo’s Mitaka Station kills six people.

Aug. 17, 1949 — A passenger train derails due to sabotage in Fukushima Prefecture, killing three crew members and leading to the indictment of 20 labor union activists.

Dec. 6, 1950 — The Fukushima District Court finds all 20 guilty, sentencing five of them to death.

Dec. 22, 1953 — The Sendai High Court finds 17 of them guilty and gives the death sentence to four.

Aug. 10, 1959 — The Supreme Court sends the case back to the high court.

Aug. 8, 1961 — The high court acquits all 17, leading prosecutors to appeal the ruling.

Sept. 12, 1963 — The Supreme Court rejects the prosecutors’ appeal, finalizing the acquittals.

Aug. 17, 1964 — The statute of limitations for the case runs out.

April, 23, 1969 — The defendants and their families win government compensation at the Tokyo District Court.

Aug. 1, 1970 — The government loses an appeal attempt at the Tokyo High Court and gives up on fighting the ruling.

“We repeatedly visited those who were involved in the Matsukawa case to seek letters exchanged among the defendants, the lawyers and the supporters, and fliers as well as rare publications about it,” said Ibe, 67.

With the ultimate acquittals, the perpetrators of the Matsukawa case remained unidentified and the truth elusive.

The former defendants and their families won compensation in a lawsuit against the government.

Yae Suzuki, who now lives in the city of Fukushima with her husband, said: “As I often went out to protest the innocence of the defendants, our two sons exchanged letters with their father in the detention house to seek his parental care. It was my jailed husband who brought them up.”

The Suzuki family donated these letters to the university archives to carry on the family history.

“I hope the university will keep the documents permanently as concrete educational tools for history,” said Makoto Suzuki, who spent almost 10 years behind bars. “Just winning acquittal was not enough. I believe we needed to put the unfair judicial system on the right track through our struggle.”

The courtroom was a baptism of fire for Kazuo Otsuka, who took on the Matsukawa case as a rookie lawyer only three months into his career.

“I directly confronted prosecutors and judges . . . the experience was a precious lesson,” said Otsuka, 84. He later was involved in the reopening of murder cases and the reversal of convictions.

On the Matsukawa case archives, Otsuka, who was the chief defense counsel, said Fukushima University is the best place to preserve the documents because visitors can examine them after going around the derailment site.