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Japan’s Most Notorious Kidnapping Is Still Unsolved

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Even Sherlock Holmes, wrote the Monster, couldn’t beat us.

In March of 1984 a kidnapping rocked Osaka. Masked men with guns dragged 42-year-old Katsuhisa Ezaki, president of the multimillion-dollar Ezaki Glico confectionery company, out of his bathtub. Here was a man whose name was a fixture in stores and vending machines across Japan (Glico candies are iconic; Pocky is just one of them)—the leader of a company that in the ruins of postwar Japan had been an engine of revitalization, selling everything from dairy products to meat curries, coming to represent health and vitality to so many millions of Japanese. Now his wife and daughter, and even his mother in the house next door, were bound and gagged as gunmen forced a still-naked Ezaki into the car waiting outside.

As Ezaki languished in a riverside Ibaraki warehouse the kidnappers made their demands—one billion yen, almost eleven million in today’s dollars, and 220 pounds of gold bullion, the largest ransom ever demanded in Japan—and the national obsession with the kidnapping only increased. In a country where only 27 kidnappings were reported in the previous year, a crime of this scale was practically unheard of. In 1983 the National Police Agency had solved ninety-seven percent of all murders, earning them the admiration and envy of police forces the world over.

The Monster with 21 Faces, as the Ezaki kidnappers styled themselves, ran rings around them. The Glico-Morinaga Case, as this string of blackmailings and extortion came to be known, marks the first time the NPA failed to even arrest a suspect.

The Monster taunted the police, the press, and Glico’s corporate offices, sending more than a hundred letters over the course of a year and a half. To the stupid police, reads one letter, Are you idiots? If you were pros, you would catch us. This was salt in the wound of an embarrassed and frantic police force who had mobilized to lock down Osaka in the aftermath of Ezaki’s kidnapping, setting up roadblock after roadblock without a trace of the Monster to show for it.

A harrowing sixty-five hours after his kidnapping, Ezaki managed to escape. The ransom would go unpaid—which did not seem to matter at all to the gang who called themselves the Monster with 21 Faces. Their goal was to upend the massive food companies that fed Japan, and their kidnapping of Katsuhisa Ezaki was only the beginning.

For decades children had been told that Glico products would make them healthy and keep them strong. The Monster would tell them different, in a series of letters mailed to Osaka news organizations.

In May came the first threat of cyanide-laced candy.

Supermarket chains and retailers panicked. After a nationwide product recall that cost millions, Glico’s sales plummeted. They were forced to lay off thousands of workers.

No traces of cyanide were ever found in a Glico product. The Monster laughed.

The Monster with 21 Faces, it must be noted, has a fictional namesake, created by detective novelist Edogawa Rampo. (Rampo’s real name was Hirai Tairô, his choice of pseudonym a Japanization of ‘Edgar Allan Poe’.) Rampo is considered the progenitor of modern detective fiction in Japan. In 1936 he published one of his most enduring stories, about an shapeshifting thief antagonist, titled “The Mystery Man with the Twenty Faces.”

Twenty faces were not enough for the Osaka extortion ring, who could outdo not only the evil masterminds of fiction but the real-world police, as well. In true Sherlockian arch-villain fashion, the Monster with 21 Faces continued to dispense hints, even telling the police which brand of typewriter they used to compose their letters.

Letters that kept coming.

After an abrupt reprieve for an embattled Glico in June (“In our group there’s also a 4-year-old kid—every day he cries for Glico … it’s a drag to make a kid cry cause he’s deprived of the candy he loves”) the Monster set their sights upon another candy giant, Morinaga.

“It is going to be like treasure hunting,” said the Monster.

This time, there really was cyanide in Morinaga candy, surfacing in stores from Tokyo to faraway Hakata. It wasn’t hard to find—each tainted candy was labeled “Danger, contains poison.”

A mailed promise: next time, there would be no such labels.

Chaos reigned. Chaos, in fact, seemed to be the goal. Stores began to boycott Morinaga products. The Monster routinely demanded cash and never bothered to collect it. Marudai Ham and the House Food Corporation received their own letters, as did dozens of other food companies.

There was more gamesmanship with the police, games which the police never won.

A suspect near a dropoff point in a Tokyo train station managed to elude arrest; this was the last in a long line of failures for Superintendent Yamamoto of Shiga Prefecture, who in August of 1985 walked into his backyard, doused himself in kerosene oil, and lit a match.

No-career Yamamoto, went the next letter, died like a man.

“So we decided to give our condolence. We decided to forget about torturing food-making companies,” the Monster continued. “We are bad guys. That means we’ve got more to do other than bullying companies.”

And their final words: “It’s fun to lead a bad man’s life.”

That was the last letter the Monster ever sent.

Theories abound regarding the Monster’s identity. Fruitless interviews of around 125,000 suspects will get you a lot of theories. All manner of people, from yakuza to disgruntled Glico employees, from stock manipulators—there was money to be made in the drastic plunge of Morinaga stock, if one had been warned of it beforehand—to North Korean secret agents to Katsuhisa Ezaki himself were considered and cleared.

And for all this chaos, the police never could conclusively state that any money changed hands at all.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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