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News outlets quick to fall in love with prison break coverage

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Did somebody say “prison break“? The thought took me back to the late 1970s, when I was waiting in the outbound immigration queue at Narita Airport, and found myself standing beside U.S. actor David Janssen (1931-80). From 1963, he’d starred in four seasons of the wildly popular ABC TV show “The Fugitive” in the role of Richard Kimble — a physician wrongly convicted of murdering his wife — who managed to escape from custody and struggled to clear his name.

While our line shuffled forward, Japanese sporadically slipped out of adjacent lines to approach Janssen and shake his hand. He modestly but graciously obliged, flashing his characteristic bittersweet smile.

“Tobosha” — the show’s name in Japanese — was said to be so popular here that TV Guide magazine reported that public bathhouses would empty out on the evenings of its weekly broadcasts so bathers could rush home to watch.

Hearing the first reports about Tatsuma Hirao’s escape from a low-security prison in Shikoku on April 8, for some reason I recalled that brief encounter with Janssen, who in his time became emblematic of an individual forced to live by his wits while on the run from the law.

A 27-year-old Fukuoka native, Hirao was serving time for multiple thefts. With a little over two years left in his sentence, he had been transferred from Fukuoka Prison in December 2017; he labored under an honor system at the Oi shipyard in the city of Imabari, one of only four such penal institutions in Japan.

Police sources say Hirao decided to flee owing to “disgust over a relationship” with a guard at the prison.

Due to the holidays, magazine coverage of the escape was scant but Weekly Playboy (May 14) ran an interview with Toshi Ofumi, who formerly served a brief stint in the French Foreign Legion and claimed to know something about escaping.

Ofumi turned out to be correct in predicting that Hirao was likely to have accumulated some cash before his escape. (When eventually apprehended in Hiroshima, he had about ¥20,000 on him.) Ofumi was also spot-on in predicting that “Japanese cops won’t let up on the search. It’s just a matter of time until they catch him.”

Last Monday evening, TV Asahi News devoted the first 10 minutes of its broadcast to Hirao’s capture, including street camera videos of his attempt to flee pursuers by scaling a wall. Those 24 days of freedom are likely to come at a high price: A commentator told TV Asahi News that Hirao could probably expect to have an additional year tacked on to his remaining sentence for the crime of escaping, plus “three to four additional years” for crimes against property committed while on the run.

Unlike Kazuko Fukuda, Tatsuya Ichihashi and several other notable fugitives who produced books, Hirao’s brief breakout is unlikely to warrant an autobiographical account of his escape.

In 1982, Fukuda strangled a rival hostess in the city of Matsuyama out of jealousy. After fleeing, she underwent several surgical procedures to become known as “the woman with seven faces.” Ehime’s police took the unusual step (at the time) of offering a substantial monetary reward for information leading to her apprehension, and she was tracked down and arrested in the city of Fukui on July 29, 1997 — just 21 days before the statute of limitations on her crime would have expired.

In 1999, she published an autobiography titled “Valley of Tears: My 14 years, 11 months and 10 days as a Fugitive.”

Tatsuya Ichihashi made international headlines when he evaded arrest after murdering English teacher Leslie Ann Hawker in his own apartment in March 2007.

Ichihashi stood over 180 centimeters tall — well above average in height — but somehow managed to evade security cameras and travel around the country for some 2½ years. He briefly sought sanctuary on a nearly uninhabited, snake-infested island in the Ryukyu archipelago about 100 kilometers west of Okinawa, and this stint as a modern-day Robinson Crusoe fascinated the media.

Ichihashi’s 238-page account, titled “Before I Was Arrested: Records of the Blank Two Years and Seven Months,” was published by Gentosha in January 2011 and quickly soared to No. 1 in nonfiction book sales on Amazon Japan.

During the Meiji Era (1868-1912) when prison conditions were much more severe, escapes were common. A record number of 1,821 convicts made successful getaways in 1881, and annual figures remained in the hundreds well into the early 20th century. Today, prison escapes have become exceedingly rare; since the mid-1970s, the number in any given year has never exceeded a single digit.

In the annals of crime and punishment, a man named Yoshie Shiratori is still remembered as “the man no prison could hold.” Between 1933 and 1947, Shiratori made four successful escapes, including one from Abashiri Prison in remote northern Hokkaido, where the nation’s worst offenders were incarcerated.

As related in numerous accounts, each morning at breakfast Shiratori spat miso soup on the door frame of his solitary cell. The salt gradually caused the door’s metal to corrode and weaken. On the night of Aug. 26, 1944, taking advantage of the wartime blackout, he stripped to his underwear and — dislocating both his shoulders from their joints — squeezed himself through the slot in the cell door used by the guards to insert the food tray. His escape made front-page headlines in the Hokkaido Shimbun.

Author Kiyohiko Sato published the definitive study on prison escapes in a 1995 work of nonfiction titled “The Escapees.” In Sato’s view, escapes owe their rarity in part to Japan’s emergence as a kanri shakai (controlled society), where what remains of individual privacy is left to the indulgence of big government, banks and other organizations. Then again, it may also reflect how prisons have become more accommodating places where cooperative inhabitants are accorded lenient treatment along with a warm bed and three meals per day.