The Unbelievable Prison Break (Part 2)

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The Unbelievable Prison Break (Part 2)

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After three months, on September 18th, the head guard Kobayashi was at home when he heard a knock on the door. To his surprise, it was the fugitive Shiratori, unkempt and disheveled. He had come to ask for a favor. Stunned Kobayashi took him in and heard what Shiratori had to say. Shiratori explained that he didn’t mind being in prison and that the only reason he escaped twice now was the tremendous abuse he suffered at the hands of sadistic guards. Shiratori thought that he owed it to Kobayashi to let him in his grand plan as he was the only officer who showed any concern during his stay in prison.

The plan was that Shiratori would willingly hand himself over to the justice department where he could personally make a case for how corrupt and barbaric the Japanese prison system was, and there needed to be a reform. He wanted to campaign for a change and, in the process, gain his legal freedom through a civil lawsuit. He felt this was the only way in which he can end up with his family. This was, of course, a super-ambitious plan. Since Kobayashi was well respected, he needed him to vouch for him to strengthen his credibility. He had a feeling Kobayashi will do the right thing.

A few minutes later, when Shiratori was in the washroom, Kobayashi called the police. Shiratori was put back in prison. In his anger and disappointment, he vowed never to trust an officer of the law again. Because of the second escape, the courthouse added three more years to his life sentence. Shiratori placed a request to be sent to a Tokyo prison where the weather was warmer as he couldn’t stand the cold. His previous stints made him severely weak, yet his request was denied. Instead, he was sentenced to the infamous Abashiri Prison in Hokkaido. The northernmost prison in Japan from which no man could ever escape.

Brick Front Gate Abashiri Prison Museum ©Bryan
Abashiri Prison

It was now 1943, and the weather was unbearably cold in Abashiri as the temperature in cells was below the freezing point. When inmates received their food, the miso soup and soy sauce would often freeze up. At this temperature, Shiratori was thrown into an open-cell, handcuffed in summer clothing, and he immediately felt paralyzed due to cold air. Perhaps in the fit of desperation, he also tried to force himself past the guards. But they pushed him back and beat him down.

Enraged and defiant, Shiratori vowed that he would escape from the Abashiri Prison and that there was nothing they could do about it. He also claimed that there was no point putting handcuffs as he’d always find a way to break free if not by picking lock then by riding them apart, and he then managed to rip apart the chain of his handcuffs right there to the horror of the guards. It turned out Shiratori had another unique ability. He possessed incredible strength. Probably in Akita Prison, he could have broken free of the cuffs in a similar physical way, but he had to put them back on after climbing back down.

This was impressive but not so smart to lay his cards on the table like that. Now the guards started to build an escape profile on him. They considered the abilities they knew he had and set out to device the ultimate escape-proof cell, one that was Shiratori proof. The new cell had steel fixtures so that there is a low chance of rot.

Any opening, even the bars removed, was made smaller than his body, meaning there was no way he could physically get out. They put specially made solid iron handcuffs that weighed 20 kgs each and had no keyhole to tie his hands behind his back and leg cuffs that made him barely able to stand. The only possible way they could be removed was by two metalwork specialists who came once every few weeks to remove them, which was a 2-hour process.

With his cuffs on, he could barely move, which meant his cuff wounds were infested with maggots. Because of the cold, which was not at its peak yet, he was already left with any strength, which meant later when it gets even colder, he would have nothing. They also cut his already meager food proportion into half. Even for Shiratori, this was too much. As the winters came, he surrendered to his fate. Every day he’d be forced to grovel like a dog as the guards would slide his meal through the opening. His hands and leg cuffs made every action awkward and uncomfortable with even sleeping being a pain. Life in Abashiri Prison became absolute torture.

Shiratori somehow managed to survive through the cold winter, and spring was coming, which meant he was starting to regain his strength. He was still in a bind. Months passed, and nothing seemed to happen until one night in August, a guard in the office was doing work when he heard some noise on the roof and decided to check up on the prisoners. To his surprise, he found that Shiratori was not in his cell. Alarms were set off, but despite the work of the search party, it seemed he had truly disappeared. The question here is, how did he escape the fortress that was Abashiri Prison?

Shirotori started preparing six months earlier when he did not have much strength or stamina to mount any sort of escape. But he had the time and a lot of patience. After every meal, he made sure that he saved a little bit of the miso soup in the corner. Every night he hobbled awkwardly to the inspection window and splashed a little of it on the steel frame and dab some on his handcuffs and leg cuffs. The intent behind this act was that the salt content of the miso soup would oxidize the screws and bolts, which would eventually corrode and loosen it. After a month, this technique started showing some results, and the first screw successfully came out.

He continued doing this for a few months. By the end of spring, he managed to remove all his cuffs as well as the steel frame of the inspection window. Shiratori’s fourth ability was to be able to dislocate his joints at will. Even though the size of the inspection window was smaller than his body, with his fourth ability, he was able to slide through the opening like a caterpillar. After that, he climbed through a broken window in the roof and disappeared.

Shiratori had now escaped from three prisons and became the only man ever to escape the Abashiri Prison. Though he managed to escape, it was the northern Hokkaido, and the only direction he could go to was the cold, snowy mountains. The prison guards felt that if the cold didn’t get him, the mountain bears certainly would. The only person who was hopeful was Shiratori’s wife though worried.

She knew that even if he was alive, he won’t be able to make it back to the family as the authorities would constantly be on his tail. This is why she was desperately and secretly hoping that Japan would lose the war as that would let the US take over the country, implying everyone would likely forget about her husband. And a year later, in August 1945, her wish came true.

The Americans took over the country’s systems, and sweeping changes were made. The chase for the infamous Yoshie Shiratori had now become a bit relaxed. But the question remained. Where was Shiratori, and was he even alive? Well, the answer to this was yes, he was alive. He was living a solitary life, but this time it was self-imposed. He had fortunately discovered an abandoned mine on a mountainside in Hokkaido wilderness and was able to make a home himself. For food, he lived on nuts and berries, wild rabbits, and raccoons. He also learned to catch crabs from a stream by observing the bears. He had a steady and safe life, but after a few days, curiosity got the better of him.

So after two long years of self-isolation, he made his way down the mountain to a nearby village where he found out about the atomic bombs. Japan had surrendered to the US the previous year, and he felt it was pointless to hide. So he headed south of Abashiri for the next 50 days until he reached the city of Sapporo. At this point, he was starving, and so he stole a nice ripe tomato from a nearby field, which was a huge mistake.

A farmer spotted him and mistook him for a well known local thief that led to a fight in the two resulting in the farmer’s abdomen being pierced by a blade. Sadly, the farmer bled out and died. Shiratori was arrested for this crime. It wasn’t long until police found out who they really had in their custody was Yoshie Shiratori. Despite all his claims of self-defense, he was sentenced to death by the District Court of Sapporo for his multiple escapes and having murdered the farmer.

sapporo prison japan
Sapporo Prison

In 1947, he was kept in Sapporo Prison to wait for execution. To ensure that he wouldn’t escape this time while on death row, he was placed under 24-hour surveillance with six armed guards who were specially assigned to his watch. The cell was upgraded further from the one in Abashiri Prison. It had reinforced doors, ceilings, bars, and windows. In fact, all openings were made smaller than the size of his head, learning from his last escape. The six guards were so confident in the fact that they didn’t even bother cuffing him. Now Shiratori was getting old, and odds of escaping were low.

As his execution day came near, there was little he could really do. Guards could see the desperation on his face looking up and searching for an escape plan that they knew would never come. Though still, they made sure to search his room every night while he was taking a bath in the bathhouse, inspecting every opening. A month passed, and winter was coming, weakening him further, and the realization was starting to dawn on him. He grew increasingly depressed, staying in bed, refusing to wake up despite the order of the guards.

This behavior went on for a while now until one fine morning when the guards had enough and entered the cell to teach him a lesson. They flipped over his duvet, and he was gone. This was not possible. How did he manage this time?

Let’s go back to when he was first placed under 24-hour surveillance with six armed guards personally assigned to his watch. He had conditioned them to look up and keep up from the very start intentionally. Little did they know that him staring at the ceiling window desperately was all an act, and he already had a plan which he’d work on when they weren’t looking. The authorities were so concerned about him escaping through a window that they neglected to reinforce the bottom. This ironically ended up being his easiest escape because all he had to do was remove the bolted floorboards, which was easy.

He used random cutlery, and miso soup bowl to dig his way out. This took more than a month, and he was able to hide his activities due to guards not suspecting this approach and floorboard panel being put back in their place every night after he finished digging for the day. The six guards were under the impression that they were keeping a good eye on him even at night, but in fact, it was the floorboards under his duvet and the hole being consistently positioned underneath the futon and the duvet.

After him escaping the prison for the fourth time, the perpetual cycle of capture and escape was now about to end at once. Because a year later, in 1948, Shiratori got tired. He was in his 40s now, and the game wasn’t for him anymore. One day in the Kotoni neighborhood, still in Sapporo, as he sat to rest for a while, a policeman happened to sit by his side for a smoke unaware of who Shiratori was, but he struck up a convo with him.

Shiratori was weary of his presence but tried playing it cool and finding a chance to remove himself from this situation without being suspicious. Suddenly the policeman, unexpectedly to Shiratori, offered him a cigarette. Shiratori was stunned. Cigarettes were an expensive luxury item in Japan at that time, and seeing someone offering it to him, who had always been abused and mistreated by officers of the law, just out of the kindness of his heart brought tears to his eyes. Even Kobayashi turned his back on him, and here was an instance of an officer treating him kindly with respect and no prejudgment.

As they smoked the cigarette, Shiratori couldn’t keep up and told the officer that he is Yoshie Shiratori. He also told the officer that he escaped from Sapporo prison last year and everything about the previous escapes. He felt relieved to get it all off his chest, and this time he was even ready for the consequences. After the Kobayashi incident, he had vowed that he would never trust another law officer again, but a simple act of kindness from a stranger after such harsh time broke him. He was arrested again, but things were not the same anymore.

Maybe it was because he willingly gave himself up or Japan’s justice system was going through a change that the high court of Sapporo became sympathetic to Shiratori’s plight, also recognizing some of his past claims like the farmer’s death as a legitimate case of self-defense. They also noted that throughout all his prison escapes, he did not kill or injure a single guard or an officer despite the abuse he may have suffered by their hands.

At the end of the deliberation, the High Court decided to dismiss the murder charge, revoked his death sentence, and instead sentenced him to just 20 years in prison. Further, they also approved his humble request to be transferred to a Tokyo Prison, where the weather was warmer. This time he was getting what he needed.

Fuchu Prison

In Tokyo, he was sent to Fuchu Prison, where for the first time, he was actually treated well by the guards. It was a weird feeling for him. There were all these precautions and security measures in place to ensure that the infamous prison break magician wouldn’t escape, but the truth was Shiratori didn’t really care anymore.

Everything that he had been fighting against, the mistreatment from guards, the death penalty, even the climate was no longer a concern, and he was at peace. He finally accepted his punishment. For the remainder of the sentence, he behaved like a model prisoner.

He was released on parole, 14 years later, in 1961. And for the first time in very a long time, he was breathing as a truly free man. He then decided to head back to Aomori, where it all began and met up with his daughter to tell his life story, who, by this point, was the only family member he had left. After that, he lived for another decade, taking up odd jobs to survive. He eventually succumbed to a heart attack in 1979.

Yoshie Shiratori
Yoshie Shiratori

Image Credits: Google Images