curry killings


curry killings

Masumi Hayashi, surrounded by reporters, waters her garden in Wakayama on Aug. 27, 1998, before her arrest on Oct. 4 that year on suspicion of insurance fraud and attempted murder after four people died from eating poisoned curry at a festival in the city. KYODO

Kin of convicted killer Masumi Hayashi break silence after 21 years

Staff writer

On a recent summer evening, tranquility reigned in this small neighborhood in Wakayama, where nothing but the occasional barking of dogs and chirring of grasshoppers broke the peaceful silence.

This rural idyll, however, was somewhat marred by the eerie sight of an empty lot that — sandwiched between neighboring houses — remained conspicuously neglected, with walls bearing illegible traces of graffiti and weeds growing with wild abandon.

Today this lot is about the only remnant that the city’s Sonobe district retains of the harrowing killings that catapulted one of its communities into the national spotlight more than 20 years ago. It’s the place where Masumi Hayashi, a convicted killer currently on death row, used to reside, and where she once famously hosed down a throng of reporters with a sinister grin on her face — the symbolic moment when she perfected her reputation as a dokufu (poisonous wife).

Hayashi’s alias is no surprise, given what she was convicted of. In 1998, the then-37-year-old mother of four became a nationwide sensation when a vat of curry was poisoned at the Sonobe district’s summer festival.

The arsenic-laced curry eventually killed four people and sickened more than 60, triggering a media frenzy almost akin to a witch hunt, as some put it, that saw the press keep tabs on Hayashi — who soon emerged as the top suspect — all summer long. The case is also notable for the fact that Hayashi was sentenced to death, a decision that was finalized in 2009 despite the lack of an apparent motive and the fact that she did not confess. To this day, Hayashi, now 58, continues to insist she is innocent.

Public interest in the saga was rekindled after Hayashi’s eldest son broke silence after about 20 years. In April, he began tweeting to raise awareness of his incarcerated mother’s pleas of innocence and later even published an autobiography detailing his “life in exile” as the son of a death row inmate.

“If she really committed those crimes that she is convicted of, it is absolutely unforgivable and I think she should be punished accordingly,” the 32-year-old son, who goes by the pseudonym Koji Hayashi, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times in Wakayama.

“I can’t say for sure my mother is the victim of wrongful conviction, but I want society to know there is at least a possibility that she is,” he said.

His one-man campaign has also drawn attention because the autobiography, published in August, put a rare spotlight on the extent to which the kin of criminal offenders can be stigmatized and discriminated against in a nation where the concept of “guilt by association” still runs deep.

The culture of open advocacy by prisoners’ families is virtually nonexistent in Japan, where many escape to a life of anonymity to avoid becoming the target of collective punishment.


Masumi Hayashi’s son, who goes by the pseudonym Koji Hayashi, keeps his hair long to conceal multiple scars on his head that he says were inflicted by his peers at an orphanage he ended up in after his mother’s arrest. SATOKO KAWASAKI

Emerging doubt

In finalizing her death sentence, the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that Hayashi alone had the opportunity to surreptitiously slip arsenic into one of the curry pots while she was tending and warming the food hours before the festival kicked off, citing eyewitness information that she was “acting suspiciously” as she did so.

It also pointed out that arsenic identical in composition to the one mixed with the curry was discovered at her home, and that an analysis of her hair detected traces of heavily concentrated arsenic.

On these grounds, the top court declared that her culpability “has been proved beyond reasonable doubt,” adding that the fact her motive remains unknown doesn’t sway its judgment of her guilt.

Looking back on that fateful day, Koji says there is a scene etched into his memory that makes it difficult for him to reconcile the mother he knows with the image of the “psychopath” depicted in the court rulings.

While the festival was getting underway, “our family was at a nearby karaoke box having fun, and I remember my mom singing in such a cheerful, happy mood that the idea she had only hours before ‘savagely’ poisoned curry to ‘indiscriminately hurt a number of people,’ as mentioned in rulings, doesn’t strike me as real,” he said.

“If she was that much of a psychopath, I think I would’ve noticed at least hints of such a personality during the 11 years I spent with her as her child.”

Soon after her ruling was finalized in May 2009, a team of her lawyers — in a desperate bid for exoneration — petitioned for a retrial of her case to the Wakayama District Court. In subsequent years, the lawyers found hope in a fresh probe led by Kyoto University professor Jun Kawai, who in 2012 questioned the result of a 1998 forensic analysis conducted at what was then a cutting-edge radiation facility, SPring-8 in Hyogo Prefecture, which played a crucial role in court rulings against Hayashi.

That SPring-8 testing concluded that traces of arsenic confiscated from Hayashi’s home and those discovered at the scene of the crime were “identical.” Kawai, however, shed light on what he described as the “haphazard” methodology of the 1998 testing, the  credibility of which he claimed was now in doubt.

Armed with this new piece of knowledge, the lawyers pressed ahead with their petition.

In March 2017, however, the Wakayama court dismissed their appeal for a retrial. Although there is “no denying that the probative force of the original testing has been diminished” by Kawai’s findings, it still doesn’t result in “a reasonable doubt being cast upon (Hayashi’s) guilty verdict,” the court said.

The lawyers are now pursuing retrial at the Osaka High Court.

Enemy of the public

Historical sociology scholar Hikaru Tanaka, who has authored a book titled “Dokufu” based on years of her reportage on the curry-poisoning saga, believes Hayashi wound up where she is today partly due to the “mass hysteria” stoked by the media, as well as her repulsive behavior.

In the months that followed the killings, “the whole nation grew convinced that she was the culprit. I don’t see how anybody could have thought she was innocent with the way she was being portrayed in the media,” Tanaka said. “It was almost like a witch hunt.”

The fact that she and her husband, Kenji, were indulging in a luxurious lifestyle by engaging in insurance fraud — which involved them insuring their acquaintance and poisoning him with nothing other than arsenic — naturally deepened suspicions of the pair.

Reports also emerged prior to her arrest that the former insurance saleswoman had in the past even poisoned her husband to collect insurance money, further strengthening her image as a cold-blooded criminal. Neighbors also thought ill of Hayashi, who had been spotted in the days before the poisoning routinely tossing garbage into a nearby irrigation canal, according to Tanaka.

The nationwide hostility toward her culminated with her unapologetic attack one day on a media scrum outside her house, in which she sprayed water on a crowd of reporters with her garden hose to shoo them away.

Masumi Hayashi was convicted of murdering four people and poisoning 63 others by lacing a curry stew with arsenic in the city of Wakayama in 1998. KYODO

If she was that much of a psychopath, I think I would’ve noticed at least hints of such a personality during the 11 years I spent with her as her child.”
Koji Hayashi

Police officers are surrounded by the media as they enter the house of Masumi and Kenji Hayashi on Oct. 6, 1998, in the city of Wakayama. KYODO

Now 74, Kenji Hayashi says reporters back then went borderline criminal in their pursuit of a scoop about his wife.

“There were guys trying to steal letters out of our mailbox or climbing on our roof so they can photograph the inside of our daughter’s room,” he said at his tiny apartment in Wakayama, where he lives alone.

“When I complained that their actions were crossing the line, one of them snapped back and said, ‘Well, my boss said that in order for me to get a scoop, they will condone me breaking the law as long as I can get away with a suspended sentence.’”

“Those were some crazy times,” he said.

According to Hayashi, who has for years stood behind his wife, Masumi Hayashi never gave in to the relentless interrogation led by the male detectives who were trying to force confessions out of her. If anything, she even once “hit back” at one of them, he said.

Tanaka believes that such an “unfeminine” act of defiance provoked the ire of authorities, dashing any hopes of her winning their sympathy.

Given the police’s masculine culture, the idea that she hit a male detective “despite being a woman,” or that her attitude was “aggressive for a woman,” was likely a shared sentiment among those interrogating her, “possibly making them all the more determined to prove her guilt,” Tanaka said.

“I think it’s possible that because of the fact she was a brazen woman, no one felt the slightest sympathy for her, which at least played a part in how she ended up,” she said.

“I can’t help but imagine how things might have turned out had she acted more meekly and with more modesty in front of the camera. If so, the media perhaps wouldn’t have called her a ‘poisonous wife.’”

Unable to feel emotion

The renewed interest today in the curry-poisoning case, however, isn’t so much about the possibility of Hayashi’s wrongful convictions as it is about Koji’s public retelling of discrimination he has endured as the son of a high-profile murderer.

In Japan, it is extremely rare for family members of prisoners to come forward, and even in Koji’s case, he keeps his real name hidden and asks the press not to photograph his face.

Soon after the initial arrest of his parents over insurance fraud, arrangements were made for Koji and his three sisters to be sent into an orphanage. It didn’t take long before the four became an easy target for bullying there.

As an adult, Koji keeps his hair long to conceal multiple scars on his head that he says were inflicted by his peers at the orphanage. His nose, he says, remains slightly deformed after it was once broken by one of his tormentors and since left unattended.

When Koji and his siblings made a brief return to their house in Sonobe several months after the arrest of their parents, he was shocked to find its surrounding walls vandalized with hateful graffiti threatening to kill them or calling them “murderers.” Months later, the house was burned down by an arsonist.

In one of the most traumatizing experiences from his adolescent days, Koji says he was also sexually molested by a female staffer at the orphanage over the course of a few years. But the notion that he is the child of one of the most heinous criminals in recent memory convinced him he has “no right to complain,” prompting him to stay silent for many years.

Back then, “I had it in my mind that I was not in a position to resist. I was resigned to everything,” Koji said. “I had become so inured to violence and verbal abuse that I was living my life unable to feel any emotion.”

His ordeal continued even after he left the facility to live on his own. As he started working, Koji did his best to hide from his colleagues who his mother was, but at a restaurant where he was hired, his employer one day found out about his family and indirectly pressured him to quit.

“You do realize you working here raises sanitary problems, right?” Koji quoted the owner as telling him — the implication being that Koji’s association with the notorious curry-poisoning case will put the restaurant’s food-safety reputation at risk.

Still, at age 29, he was successfully engaged to a woman who accepted his proposal despite knowing everything about his mother. For the first time in a long time, he was over the moon.

But when he confided to his fiance’s father about his mother, every hope he had built about a happy home life — something he had always craved — vanished in the most excruciating way.

“I didn’t raise my daughter to give her to the son of a death-row inmate!” the father shouted at him, breaking into an angry rant. That, Koji recalls, was the end of his relationship with the woman and her family.

Despite everything he went through, Koji says he doesn’t mean to play victim or advocate change for the way prisoners’ families are treated in society.

“It is easy to say discrimination shouldn’t happen, but the reality isn’t so pretty,” he said. From what he has seen, he said, families of criminal offenders are “bound to” suffer some form of bullying or discrimination in society.

“What I think is important is to accept there is no escaping that fate, and make sure you don’t use these adversities as some kind of excuse to go reckless or break the law yourself. I hope people in a similar situation will feel encouraged to see how even I, with everything I’ve gone through, have survived without falling into the dark side.”

Kenji Hayashi, the husband of Masumi Hayashi, who is on death row over the 1998 Wakayama curry-poisoning case, is interviewed in the city on Sept. 9. SATOKO KAWASAKI


A wall at the home of Masumi Hayashi is covered with graffiti in January 1999 before her trial in the Wakayama curry-poisoning case. KYODO

Guilt by association

But the enormous amount of resilience and willpower it has taken Koji to stay positive is a testament in itself to the burden placed upon prisoners’ families, and that is exactly what Kyoko Abe says she strives to change.

Abe heads a Sendai-based nonprofit called World Open Heart, one of the few organizations in Japan that specializes in offering support to the kin of offenders.

Abe says hers was the only such group when she started her activism in 2008. Back then, there was little information available on prisoners’ families, and the best she could find out about their situations were snippets of online reports saying, for example, that the father of high-profile serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who was sentenced to death for raping and murdering four girls, had committed suicide.

“I’ve seen many troubled families over the years, and the reason I think we need to support them is because of the simplest fact that their dignity as human beings is threatened,” Abe says.

“It’s egregious that they are held punishable for crimes they didn’t commit, with their privacy exposed and sometimes even their lives put in danger, based solely on the fact they ‘share blood’ with those who did the wrong.”

Abe says that offenders’ families are stigmatized so much that it is not uncommon for them to have to move out of town, lose jobs or have their engagements called off. Over the years, Abe has heard some people say matter-of-factly that prisoners “shouldn’t give birth” because their offspring may somehow inherit their criminality, she said.

“In Japan, the idea that the whole family is ‘on the same boat’ is ingrained so deeply in society that all of its members tend to be deemed tainted by the criminal act by one of them,” she said.

As such, when World Open Heart organizes a periodical gathering aimed at encouraging prisoners’ families to share their innermost feelings with each other, many participants prefer anonymity, some even disguising themselves with hats and masks, she said.

Some Western countries are seeing some change, where family members of prisoners are beginning to go public and even engaging in open advocacy.

Carolyn Esparza, chair of the International Prisoner’s Family Conference in Texas, said discrimination against families used to be “all too blatant,” but that with vocal activism, she said she has seen an encouraging shift in attitude.

“In the past, I believe families heard devastating words of hatred and criticism far more than they do today,” she said.

Things began to change, Esparza said, as “real faces are put on the families of incarcerated persons.” The more organizations like hers move toward visualizing those incarcerated, she said, “the more society members are realizing — by actually seeing — that people who are incarcerated, and certainly their families, are no different than any other family.”

In the annual conference in Texas, she says prisoners’ families are often seen freely talking with each other about crimes committed by their loved ones, taking selfies together and uploading them on social media — something that Abe says is almost unthinkable in Japan.

Diane Curry, CEO of Partners of Prisoners (POPS) in Manchester, says Britain, too, has made similar progress over the years as families took it upon themselves to become “visible.”

Thirty-plus years ago when her husband was in prison, “we were viewed as ‘guilty by association’ and it felt like we were also serving a sentence,” she said.

Although a measure of stigma still exists, “more and more families, professional workers and government agencies recognize that families should be supported, not stigmatized and alienated,” she said. “Assisting families to identify their problems and resolve them is a better way than to blame them for things that may be out of their control.”

Only mother in the world

As he contemplates his life ahead of him, Koji, who currently works as a truck driver, says he still hasn’t given up on marriage.

“When I once came really close to getting married, I felt joy and a sense of fulfillment like never before … I pictured myself taking my kids to one of those sushi-go-around restaurants on weekends and listening to them talk about school,” he said.

“And I thought to myself, ‘So that’s what you’d call happiness,’” he said.

But for now, he says he will put off the prospect of fatherhood and focus his energy on his fight for his incarcerated mother. He says he will keep up his current activity until either her case is reopened, her death in prison or her execution takes place.

On Twitter, he routinely uploads image after image of Hayashi’s handwritten letters to him from behind bars, in an apparent bid to emphasize her side as a mother, not as a cold-blooded killer.

“When I was younger, she would send me from inside prison some teen fashion magazines like Men’s Non-no as gifts, but lately she began sending me business-like stuff more befitting my age. This made me realize she’s actually keeping count of how old I am, even though we live so far apart,” he said.

“And when I go visit her, she asks me in that overly-solicitous-mother sort of way whether I’m eating well, dating anyone or getting paid enough at work,” he says with a chuckle.

“It’s at moments like this when I’m reminded that Masumi Hayashi is, after all, the only person in the world I can call my mother.”


More Deep Dives from The Japan Times