JIN-507 -- The Hayashi curry poisoning

J@pan Inc Newsletter
The 'JIN' J@pan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends in Japan.
Issue No. 507 Wednesday April 22, 2009, Tokyo

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This week saw another chapter in the death penalty debate in Japan
with the Supreme Court on Tuesday upholding the district court-level
guilty verdict of Masumi Hayashi. The conviction of Hayashi, a 47-year-
old former insurance saleswoman, was one of the less clear-cut examples
of verdicts within a legal system known for its near 100-percent conviction rate.

In 1998, at a summer festival in the city of Wakayama, 4 people died
and 63 others became ill after eating poisoned curry.Wakayama was
charged and later convicted of the crime and sentenced to death on
circumstantial evidence. A clear motive was never clarified within the
courts although, according to a Kyodo News report, prosecutors
insisted she was "infuriated by feeling alienated from housewives in
the neighborhood" when she went to where the curry was being prepared
on the day of the festival.

Hayashi, has maintained the entire time that she is innocent.

The court also upheld the conviction of the attempted murder of her
husband and a male acquaintance by, on a separate occasion, giving
them arrowroot gruel, laced with arsenic. The prosecution said on that
occasion, Hayashi had attempted to commit murder in order to obtain
her husband’s insurance money.

During the different trials, husband Kenji Hayashi, a 63-year-old pest
exterminator, has supported his wife and yesterday spoke out about the

Here’s what he said in the Kyodo News report:

"(The Supreme Court ruling) is regrettable because I've been trying to
prove her innocence up till today," he said before dressing down the
entire criminal justice system. His claims covered the gamut from the
"flawed police investigation" to the "bogus crime scenario cooked up
by prosecutors" and the "false conviction" of his wife by all three courts.

"The Supreme Court only rubber-stamped the rulings of the lower courts
and therefore is outrageous," He said. "I will continue to do my
utmost to support her and never give in."

Among those who died from the incident were a 10-year-old child and a
16-year-old high school girl. Many still suffer from the after effects
of the poisoning.

It’s one of the more bizarre and complicated cases to have faced the
nation’s courts over the past decade. The prosecution’s opening
arguments were over 200 pages long and were built around testimony
stating that the arsenic in the curry matched arsenic found at
Hayashi’s house. The previous arsenic poisoning of her husband was
also a major factor.

The story was jumped on by all the major media outlets and as a result,
about 5000 people attempted to get into the initial trial in May of
1999. (There were only 80 seats available). Also, following media
reports, there were a series of copycat cases that resulted in
fatalities. A man died after drinking a canned drink that contained
cyanide. In another case, a man confessed to trying to poison his
colleagues to draw attention away from his plan to embezzle his
company. A 15-year-old girl also admitted to mailing bottles of lethal
disinfectant which she had labeled as diet drinks, to her teacher and
26 classmates.

So, now, a decade later, the initial decision has been supported by
the Supreme Court. On its surface the case is ambiguous from both sides
– In the late 1990s, Hayashi’s husband was convicted of insurance fraud
and received a short prison term. Had his wife tried to poison him for
insurance before the curry poisoning incident? But if the mass
poisoning at the summer festival had been carried out by Hayashi
simply due to spite directed at some neighborhood housewives, why
would she have laced curry that would then be fed to dozens of
innocents, including children, and how does this relate to previous
insurance fraud schemes? Also, Kenji Hayashi was a pest exterminator
so doesn’t it make sense they would have poisonous chemicals at their

The facts in this case remain unclear and despite the questionable
treatment of those suspected of crimes at the hands of police, Hayashi
has continually maintained her innocence.

So under these circumstances, should the death penalty be awarded?

If you've got any comments you can place them here.

Michael Condon

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The death penalty... It's bad in other countries when occasionally the judicial system fails the accused. In Japan... well it's OK because the criminal justice system here is perfect. With a nearly 100% conviction rate, it surely means that they never make mistakes. We also know that the police are always honest and would never lie. They would never abuse their power either. No, Japan's legal system is the best in the world and anyone who tries to argue otherwise is destined to lose that debate!

Not that a decade is a short time, but it seems that the Courts are once again eager to put this matter behind them. After reviewing the case the Supreme Court upholds Hayashi`s sentence, but isn't the fact that there ARE questions about both her innocence and prosecutorial procedures enough incentive to change that sentence to life imprisonment? Executing someone convicted of a capital offense beyond an irrefutable doubt is an accepted punishment, but too often we have seen cases of convictions overturned years later on the basis of some new evidence. No judicial system is perfect and in cases of even the smallest doubt it is only logical and humane to err on the side of caution.

In a country without double jeopardy, she would have got off the murder charge. She could have claimed "Yes, I poisoned those people, but I never meant to kill them." Proving the intent to murder would have been impossible. In Japan, the prosecution can go on until they get the conviction. But it was completely the wrong charge to bring here. Manslaughter or involuntary homicide, yes, and relatively easy to prove, and on the scale that she committed her crime, she should have got life without parole.

As to whether the death penalty is justified, that's a completely different matter. As a militant pacifist, I believe it is never justified under any circumstances (for a wide variety of unoriginal reasons, all of which you have heard before).