• Kyodo


The whereabouts of a 27-year-old prison escapee remained unknown Monday as a weeklong manhunt involving some 6,600 police officers on a small forested island off Shikoku failed to nab the convicted thief.

Police in Hiroshima and Ehime prefectures have been pursuing Tatsuma Hirao on Mukaishima Island in the Seto Inland Sea since he escaped from Matsuyama Prison in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, on April 8.

Hirao has left a trail of clues including fingerprints on cars he broke into and trash left from sweets and milk products he consumed. As of Saturday, the Hiroshima police said they had received 145 witness reports of a man resembling Hirao.

The unique geographical character of the island, which has a population of around 20,000, has thwarted the police. Its forest cover and hilly topography have prevented officers from making an effective search, they say.

The search has also been complicated by the 22-sq.-km island having over 1,000 vacant houses that police cannot enter without permission from the owners, many of whom they are unable to identify. This means the police can only investigate the structures from outside, a senior police official said.

With seven thefts having occurred in a specific part of the island between last Monday and Friday, Hirao is believed to have acquired cash to live on.

Police officers say Hirao may be surviving on food from the vacant houses and items left as offerings at graves. In addition, there are plenty of citrus trees and unattended orchards he could access.

The narrowest point between Mukaishima and Honshu is only 200 meters, leading to speculation Hirao may attempt to swim to the mainland. But an official from a local ferry company said that would be a bad idea.

“The tide is fast and the water is still cold. It would be reckless to swim,” the official said.

There are also four bridges he could use.

Hirao escaped from prison’s Oi shipyard, a rare open-type prison facility that is only one of four in Japan that lack perimeter walls. According to the Justice Ministry, 19 people have escaped the shipyard since it was established in 1961.

The islanders are meanwhile fed up with the inconvenience Hirao has caused, especially traffic jams at police checkpoints.

“It takes much longer than usual to drive. I’m wondering how long this situation will continue,” said Hiroyuki Mizuno, a 70-year-old resident of the island.