Read The Case of the Sharaku Murders Online

Authors: Katsuhiko Takahashi

The Case of the Sharaku Murders


The Case of the Sharaku Murders

An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company Limited (WPC)
Another imprint of WPC is Anthem Press (
First published in the United Kingdom in 2013 by
75–76 Blackfriars Road
London SE1 8HA

Original title:
Sharaku satsujin jiken
Copyright © Katsuhiko Takahashi 1986
Originally published in Japan by Kodansha, Ltd.
English translation copyright © Ian MacDonald 2013

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced
in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher.

The moral rights of the author have been asserted in accordance
with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All the characters and events described in this novel are imaginary
and any similarity with real people or events is purely coincidental.

A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978-0-85728-129-6

This title is also available as an eBook.

This book has been selected by the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP),
an initiative of the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan.



Translated by
Ian MacDonald


scroll hangs on the wall.
      The backing looks very old but the painting itself is in excellent condition, suggesting the scroll has rarely been unrolled. There is little sign of flaking or insect damage. Two silk bands attached to the rod that the scroll is hung from match the silver brocade mounting above and below the painting. It undoubtedly cost a pretty penny when new.

The predominant tone of the painting is brown. Executed on a rectangle of silk about a foot wide and a yard long, it shows an enormous lion, head lowered, face twisted into a ferocious snarl, with deep furrows running from its brow to the bridge of its nose. Its long, sharp claws are sunk into the ground and the hairs on its back, which are clearly discernable, stand up in great waves. One can almost hear the beast's labored breathing; it appears poised to pounce on the viewer.

This is not one of those stylized Chinese lions so common in early modern Japanese painting, it is something far more unusual: a lion in the style of the Naturalist School imported to Japan from the West in the late eighteenth century.

Though it appears to be painted with Japanese watercolors, the surface has a tactile quality and a luster like an oil painting. Upon closer inspection, it appears coated with some sort of varnish. Before oil paints were widely available in Japan, varnish was sometimes used to imitate the look of Western paintings.

The artist must have modeled his lion on a Dutch copperplate engraving or the like. The background features an Oriental landscape. The original probably had no background so the artist must have felt compelled to provide his own. The result is a lion who looks as though he has stepped out of the African savanna into a landscape of gnarled Japanese pine trees and craggy Chinese peaks. One has to admit it is a rather bizarre juxtaposition.

Putting aside the painting's thematic incongruities, it is clearly the work of a master. There is no denying the extraordinary brushwork.

In small lettering in the upper left-hand corner the painting is signed,
Chikamatsu Shoei, formerly known as Toshusai Sharaku
and dated,
Month of Rebirth, Dog-Ox Year of the Kansei Era
According to the old Japanese calendar, which was based on the Chinese zodiac, the Dog-Ox year corresponded to the tenth year of the Kansei Era and the Month of Rebirth to the second lunar month.

In other words, the picture was painted in March 1798 by an artist who changed his pseudonym from Toshusai Sharaku to Chikamatsu Shoei.


A Chance Reunion

      THE NARROW BEAM of the small flashlight the man held in his hand petered out before reaching the ocean some two hundred feet below and melted into the inky blackness of the night. He heard only the heavy and persistent lapping of waves, whose sound, mingled with the howling of the wind, seemed to travel along the beam of light.

The man let out a deep sigh.

Even if his flashlight had been twice as bright he could have found nothing that night amidst the dark sea and the black barren cliffs. Still, the flashlight's beam swept stubbornly back and forth over the jagged coast, from time to time becoming swallowed up by the darkness.

It was three o'clock in the morning.

Though still early October the temperature hovered around freezing. A sudden strong gust of wind rose from the sea. The man instinctively turned up the collar of his suit. He was not wearing a coat. On the northeastern coast of Japan winter was getting ready to set in.

His frozen fingers still clutching the metal flashlight, the man at last turned his back to the sea with a look of resignation and began to walk away.

He gradually quickened his pace because of the cold, puffs of white breath emerging from his mouth. After about five minutes he came to a narrow road. The car he had come in, a silver BMW, sat parked with its powerful engine purring away. Another man sat in the back seat. He had heard the man's footsteps approaching.

“You've been gone a long time,” the second man said as he opened the door. “How'd it go?”

The heater was switched on and it was warm inside. Cigarette smoke filled the interior.

“No luck,” replied the first man, sliding into the driver's seat.

“Not surprising at this time of night. I take it you didn't find anything either?”

“Nope. I looked all over. But I'm not familiar with the area… Oh, I found a restaurant a little further up the road…”

“I know the one. I doubt anyone's there.”

“It was completely dark. I shined my flashlight inside to make sure.”

“The owner obviously doesn't live there. I can understand why; it must be difficult seeing how few houses there are around here.”

As he spoke, the man held his frozen fingertips up to the vent of the heater. Noticing this, the second man quickly took out a thermos and poured some coffee into a paper cup and gave it to him. The aroma of coffee filled the small car. The man took it and held it in both hands, savoring its warmth. For some time he said nothing.

“Well, I guess we ought to be getting back to the cottage,” he finally muttered. “We won't accomplish anything by hanging around here. Better get some sleep… We've been on the road for over ten hours since Tokyo. Not that I mind; he's my brother-inlaw after all, but I can't ask you to do more than you already have.”

“Don't worry. I can live without sleep for one night… But I wonder if we're jumping to conclusions.”

“I don't think so. He definitely came up here to the cottage. Plus there's that phone call I received this morning,” the man sighed dejectedly.

The wind blew more fiercely than ever, rocking the car from side to side. The two men stared uneasily out the windows into the darkness. Overhead, the sky was shrouded in dense cloud. Not a star was in sight.

The man lowered the car window and tossed out the paper cup he had been drinking from. It was immediately swept away by the wind and vanished into the inky blackness of the night. There was still a little while to go before dawn.

Body Found off Cape Kitayama Identified as Saga Atsushi
Tokyo Calligrapher Disappeared Four Days Ago—Police
Suspect Suicide

OCTOBER 14—At around seven thirty yesterday morning, Sato Hideharu (27), a deckhand on the Daihachi Eikomaru—a squid fishing vessel owned by Sakata Eizaburo of Ofunato city—discovered the body of a man floating in the ocean two-and-a-half miles off the coast of Cape Kitayama near Tanohata in Shimohei County. The crew recovered the body and transported it to the nearest police station, in the town of Kuji.

Shortly after two p.m. the same day, as police were attempting to determine the man's identity, an inquiry from the police substation in Fudai led to the body being identified as that of Saga Atsushi (56), a Tokyo-based calligrapher for whom a missing person's report had been filed.

Mr. Saga owned a vacation cottage near Tanohata and had not been heard from since the night of October 8, when he left his apartment building in Miyanishi-cho, Fuchu, Tokyo, without telling anyone where he was going. Concerned for his safety, his brother-in-law, Mizuno Keiji, filed a missing person's report with the Fudai police substation on the morning of October 10. Mr. Mizuno and an acquaintance of Mr. Saga's had visited the cottage the previous night and found only his luggage. Mr. Mizuno remained in the area alone to continue his search. He was notified of the discovery of the body on the afternoon of October 13. He proceeded directly to Kuji, where he identified the body as that of his brother-in-law.

At six p.m. the same day, Mr. Saga's body was taken via police ambulance to Iwate Medical University Hospital in Morioka where an official autopsy was performed. The investigation by the Kuji Police Department suggests that Mr. Saga committed suicide at about five o'clock on the evening of the October 9 by jumping from the cliff at Cape Kitayama near his cottage. Though no suicide note was found and his exact motive is still unclear, Mr. Saga was a widower who lived alone and was reportedly suffering from mild depression. He recently expressed his intention to resign as chairman of the Tokyo Bibliophilic Society.

Mr. Saga enjoyed great acclaim as a calligrapher. His work won several awards and he was widely regarded as the leading designer of Chinese seals used by collectors of rare books. He was also a renowned expert on ukiyo-e and the author of numerous books and articles on the subject. His passing will be deeply mourned.

The Daily Morning News

October 17

TSUDA RYOHEI was in a hurry.

When his Japanese National Railways train pulled into Tokyo's Hachioji Station, he stepped out onto the platform the second the doors opened and bounded up the stairs two at a time. Thin and lean, Ryohei was also light on his feet.

Exiting the fare gate, he noticed the area around the station had changed considerably from his university days. Even the station itself, which was in the midst of renovations, looked different than how he remembered it. Ryohei looked around for the nearest police box. Before, there had been one immediately to the left of the fare gate. He looked, but saw it was no longer there. Then he noticed a temporary one had been set up behind the stairs. Ryohei breathed a sigh of relief. He only had twenty minutes. He wanted to make sure he knew exactly where he was going.

Upon inquiring at the police box he learned Koan Temple was less than a five-minute walk from the station. The policeman explained it was not far from the public library. As a college student, Ryohei had used the library several times. With a nod of thanks he set off in that direction and as he walked, he suddenly felt his steps grow heavy.

Ryohei, wearing his everyday suit and tie, had come to Hachioji on behalf of his art history professor to attend the funeral of the renowned calligrapher and woodblock print expert Saga Atsushi.

“WHAT A SURPRISE running into you here of all places, Yosuke.”

The funeral was over and Ryohei was sitting in a café not far from the temple, smiling amiably at Kokufu Yosuke.

“Same here,” responded his companion, gazing nostalgically at Ryohei. It was five o'clock in the evening. Outside dusk was already falling. There were only a handful of other customers in the café. “How long has it been—about two years?” he asked, doing a quick calculation in his head.

“Must be. I haven't seen you since the professor's book party.” Ryohei paused and glanced in Yosuke's direction. The last time the two had met was at a party held by Professor Nishijima, who taught art history at their alma mater, Musashino University—a private university near Kichijoji—to celebrate the publication of his latest book. Yosuke had gotten into a heated argument with another alum by the name of Yoshimura Kentaro. It had ended with Yosuke punching Yoshimura and leaving the party in disgrace. Ryohei had not seen him since.

But Yosuke's face betrayed no emotion. Relieved, Ryohei went on:

“Let's see… That was over two-and-a-half years ago.”

“That long? Time flies, doesn't it?” Yosuke smiled and lit a cigarette.

Yosuke had graduated from Musashino ten years before Ryohei. In college, both Ryohei and Yosuke had majored in Japanese art history and taken Professor Nishijima's seminar on Edo art. Though they had never met on campus, they had come to know each other through the reunions the professor held several times a year for his former seminar students.

Most of those who attended these gatherings were connected in some way or other with the world of ukiyo-e. Professor Nishijima had been teaching at Musashino for ten years when Ryohei took his seminar, and while the full roster of Nishijima's former students—at least on paper—had almost sixty members, not all of these attended the professor's reunions.

Nishijima Shunsaku was widely regarded as Japan's foremost expert on the ukiyo-e artist Toshusai Sharaku. The professor's early groundbreaking book on Sharaku had made his name and was still in print twenty years later. On the strength of this book Musashino had recruited Nishijima to come and teach there sixteen years ago.

At the time Musashino was still a relatively new university and the decision to woo him had been motivated more by a desire for publicity than to have an ukiyo-e expert on the faculty, which was weighted toward Japanese literature; indeed, there had been stiff opposition within the university to offering courses on so narrow a subject as ukiyo-e. The upshot was that Nishijima had been forced to broaden his scope to include all of Edo-period art. Even so, the numbers of students signing up for his courses were not as great as his fame might have led one to expect.

On average, about six students a year enrolled in Nishijima's seminar. But instead of being discouraged, Nishijima took this rebuff—if that is what it was—as a call to action. He abandoned his half-hearted attempt to cover the entire Edo period.. Keeping the name of the course the same
Japanese Art of the Edo Period
he revamped his lectures and focused exclusively on ukiyo-e. At the same time, he threw himself into his research and began churning out articles and reviews for scholarly journals and newspapers alike. As a result, he climbed steadily up the academic ladder; within five short years had reached the rank of full professor, an almost unprecedented achievement for someone whose lectures attracted so few students.

Nishijima's enhanced status earned him greater respect within the ukiyo-e community. At the time, ukiyo-e still had not gained full acceptance in Japan as a bona fide academic discipline; only a handful of universities in the country offered courses on it. Only two other ukiyo-e scholars held university positions apart from him.

It was not long before the name Nishijima Shunsaku came to carry great weight.

As his influence in ukiyo-e circles grew, more of Nishijima's former students began finding jobs with museums and publishers of art books and journals. His power grew such that no publishing house or museum that dealt with ukiyo-e would dare refuse to employ a student he had recommended. And the more students he placed in such institutions and organizations, the more his power grew. It was through Nishijima's influence that Yoshimura—the cause of Yosuke's expulsion from the alumni group—had obtained the position of curator at a private art museum.

This was how things stood when Ryohei graduated from university four years ago. Lately he had heard that even students with no particular interest in ukiyo-e were trying to get into Nishijima's seminar because of his reputation on campus for helping his students get jobs in the mass media.

This sort of talk disconcerted Ryohei; upon graduation he had turned down a job offer from an art publishing house in order to stay at Musashino and work as Nishijima's research and teaching assistant.

That had been four years ago. Time had passed quickly; Ryohei was now twenty-six.
That would make Yosuke thirty-six
thought Ryohei, doing a quick mental calculation.

Yosuke had enrolled in Professor Nishijima's seminar the first year it had been offered. After college he had taken a job with a trading company rather than working with ukiyo-e. But until the incident with Yoshimura, Yosuke had religiously attended the professor's reunions, almost as though he felt some deep connection to his student days which he was reluctant to sever. Yoshimura and the other alums had treated Yosuke with the deference Japanese students typically accord their seniors, but in private they kept their distance, disdainful of his career choice.

Only Ryohei had seemed to hit it off with Yosuke.

“SO HOW DID you know the late Mr. Saga?” asked Ryohei, voicing the question that had been on his mind.

“Strangely, it's got absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with ukiyo-e… I'm sure I'd never get back into the professor's good graces if he heard me say that… The fact is, I just happened to join Mr. Saga's book club when I moved from Nakano to Fuchu.”

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