An Extract from Seicho Matsumoto’s ‘Tokyo Express’

In this extract from Tokyo Express, the bodies of a young couple are discovered – clearly a lovers' suicide. But in the eyes of senior detective and young gun, something is not quite right...

Tokyo Express cover on grey background

Three stops before Hakata, coming from Moji on the Kagoshima main line, there is a small station named Kashii. From there, the road to the mountains leads to a former imperial shrine. Head across the sea, however, and you reach a shore that looks out across Hakata bay. It is a beautiful view: in front, a thin spit of land known as Umi-no-Nakamichi girdles the bay, the half-island of Shi- kanoshima rising from the sea at its farthest reach, while off to the left the hazy outline of Nokonoshima island is faintly visible.

This section of shore, these days known simply as Kashii beach, was once referred to as the ‘tidelands of Kashii’. In the eighth century, the governor Otomo no Tabito, passing by, composed a celebrated poem:


Come all – on the tidelands of Kashii,

Let us gather seaweed for breakfast,

Our white sleeves grazing the water.

But the harsh present has no time for such lyricism. At around six thirty on the cold morning of the twenty-first of January, a labourer was making his way along the shore. Instead of gathering seaweed for breakfast, he was heading to a factory in Najima.

It was barely dawn. A milky haze lay over the bay, through which Umi-no-Nakamichi and Shikanoshima dimly emerged. The cold wind was laced with brine. The labourer had turned up the collar of his coat and walked briskly, his body hunched. This rugged beach was the fastest route to the factory, and he walked along it every day.

But today that routine was broken. With his gaze cast downwards, he couldn’t miss them. Two bodies were lying on the dark rocks, an unwelcome blight on this familiar landscape.

They were stretched out bleakly in the pale half-light of morning. The hems of their clothing flapped in the cold wind but, other than their hair, nothing moved. Their black shoes and white tabi socks remained motionless. Bewildered, the labourer broke into a run, diverting from his usual route and racing all the way to town, where he rapped on the window of a small police station.

‘There are bodies on the beach!’

‘Bodies?’ The elderly policeman, who had just woken up, buttoned his coat against the cold as he listened to this breathless visitor.

‘Yes, sir. Two of them. A man and a woman.’

‘Where are they?’ The policeman’s eyes had opened wide at the sudden turn his morning had taken.

‘Not far from here. On the beach. I’ll show you.’ ‘Right. Just wait a moment.’

Although shaken, he had the presence of mind to write down the labourer’s name and address and make a phone call to the main Kashii police station. Then the two of them set off in a hurry. Their breath hung white in the icy air.

When they reached the beach, the bodies were still lying there, exposed to the sea wind. With the policeman now at his side, the labourer could observe the bodies more calmly.

It was the woman who drew his attention first. She lay on her back, facing upwards. Her eyes were closed, but her open mouth revealed a set of bright white teeth. Her face was an almost rosy pink. Beneath a dark grey winter coat she wore a maroon silk kimono, its white collar slightly loose at the neck. Her clothes were immaculate. Lying there gracefully, she seemed to be merely sleeping. The hem of her kimono fluttered in the wind, revealing its yellow lining. On her primly aligned feet were a pair of pristine white tabi socks. There was no trace of dirt on them. Immediately next to her, also neatly arranged, was a pair of plastic zori sandals.

Now the labourer turned his gaze to the man. His face was tilted to the side. He, too, had the rosy cheeks of the living and resembled nothing so much as a drunk who had simply dozed off. From under his dark blue overcoat extended a pair of brown trousers, and his feet, in a pair of black shoes, were almost casually outstretched. The shoes were well polished and had clearly been looked after; his socks were navy blue, with red stripes.

The two bodies lay very close to each other. A small crab had clambered out of a crack in the rocks and was trying to crawl into an empty orange-juice bottle lying near the man.

‘Double suicide, looks like . . .’ said the elderly policeman, looking down at them.

‘The poor things. Still so young, too.’

The beach was beginning to take on the colour of day.

Around forty minutes later, having received a call from Kashii police station, a chief detective, two other detectives, the police doctor and a forensics expert all arrived from Fukuoka by car. When they had taken photos of the bodies from various angles, the doctor squatted next to them to get a closer look

‘Bit of a cold place to choose to die,’ said someone in a low voice, almost a murmur, as if addressing no one in particular.

‘Potassium cyanide, the pair of them,’ he said. ‘These rosy cheeks of theirs are a dead giveaway. They must have taken it with the orange juice.’

The dregs of an orange liquid could be seen in the juice bottle that lay on the ground.

‘How long have they been dead, Doctor?’ asked the chief detective, who had a small moustache.

‘We won’t know for sure until we take them in, but I’d say ten hours or so.’

‘Ten hours . . .’ muttered the chief detective, casting his gaze around the scene. That would mean around ten or eleven the previous night. His eyes darted about, as if imagining how the double suicide might have played out.

‘And they took the cyanide at the same time?’ ‘That’s right. Must have mixed it with the juice.’

‘Bit of a cold place to choose to die,’ said someone in a low voice, almost a murmur, as if addressing no one in particular. The doctor, turning to see who it was, found a thin, unimposing man in a battered overcoat. He must have been in his late forties.

‘Ah, Torigai,’ said the doctor, after taking in the detective’s creased features. ‘Well, I’d say that’s something only the living would worry about. Temperature doesn’t make much difference to the dead. Come to think of it, orange juice isn’t exactly a winter drink either. Yes . . .’ He chuckled to himself. ‘They must have been in quite the deviant state of mind. Rather than thinking rationally, I suppose they succumbed to a sort of perverse ecstasy.’

Now it was the detectives who chuckled among themselves, amused by the doctor’s overblown rhetoric.

‘Not to mention the fact that drinking poison takes a certain kind of resolve,’ the chief detective observed. ‘Yes, I suppose they’d have to be a little disturbed to go through with a thing like this.’

‘Chief, any chance this could be a murder-suicide?’ asked one of the other detectives, speaking in a broad Hakata accent.

‘No. Clothes are undisturbed, no signs of a struggle . . . I’d say it’s clear they took the cyanide by mutual consent.’

It was true. The woman’s body lay there peacefully on the ground. Her white socks looked as though they had been removed only moments ago from the sandals arranged neatly next to her. Her hands were clasped together.

Now that it was clear they were dealing with a double suicide, the expressions on the detectives’ faces relaxed. Indeed, with no crime having been committed, and no culprit for them to investigate, they seemed at something of a loose end.

The two bodies were taken in a van to the station. The detectives, shrugging and shivering against the cold, climbed into their car too. And, relieved of their unusual presence, the windswept bay of Kashii, lit by the pale sunlight of the winter morning, became tranquil once more.

Back at the station, the bodies were thoroughly examined. Photos were taken as their clothing was removed, one layer at a time. It was a painstaking operation.

A small wallet fell out of the man’s jacket pocket, and from it they learned his identity. It contained a commuter pass, valid between Asagaya and Tokyo, in the name of Kenichi Sayama, thirty-one years old. The business cards provided further details. Next to his name was his position: ‘Assistant Section Chief, Section X, Ministry X’. On the left was his home address.

The detectives exchanged glances. The section of the ministry in question was currently embroiled in a bribery scandal. Newspaper articles were appearing on the subject almost every day.

‘No suicide note?’ asked the chief.

They searched thoroughly but found nothing resembling one in any of his pockets. Just shy of ten thousand yen in cash, a handkerchief, a shoehorn, a folded copy of the previous day’s newspaper and a crumpled receipt from a train dining car.

‘A dining-car receipt? Odd thing for him to be carrying about.’

The chief took the receipt and carefully smoothed it out. It had apparently been forgotten in the man’s pocket and was in a fairly battered state.

‘Dated the fourteenth of January,’ read the chief. ‘Train number 7. One person. Total of three hundred and forty yen. Issued by the Japan Dining Company. Doesn’t say what he ordered.’

Just as the sunlight coming through the windows was beginning to dwindle, there was a sudden flurry of footsteps.

‘Do we know who the woman is?’ asked one of the detectives.

Soon they did. Loose in her folding purse, along with around eight thousand yen, were four or five small business cards.

Toki – Koyuki Restaurant – Akasaka, Tokyo ’ read the flowing script on the cards.

‘Toki must be her name. Looks like she was a waitress at the Koyuki in Akasaka,’ concluded the chief detective. ‘So, the love suicide of a government official and a restaurant waitress. Plausible enough, I’d say.’ He ordered telegrams to be sent to the addresses on the cards.

The bodies were examined in greater detail by the police doctor.

No external wounds were found. In both cases, the cause of death was cyanide poisoning, with the time of death estimated at between nine and eleven o’clock the previous evening.

‘So they went for a walk on the beach, then committed suicide together,’ remarked a detective.

‘I imagine they . . . savoured their last moments with each other,’ added another. But the doctor informed them that the bodies bore no signs of sexual relations prior to death. The detectives looked somewhat surprised to hear this; one of them remarked that they had died ‘rather innocently’. It was again confirmed that the deaths were caused by cyanide poisoning.

‘Seems they left Tokyo on the fourteenth,’ said the chief, looking at the date on the dining-car receipt. ‘Today’s the twenty-first, so they set off a week ago. I imagine they stopped off somewhere along the way, then came to Fukuoka and decided on a place to die. Go and ask the station which train this number 7 is, will you?

One of the detectives went to make the phone call and soon returned to report: ‘Apparently it’s a super-express from Tokyo to Hakata. The Asakaze.’

‘A super-express to Hakata?’ said the chief, cocking his head. ‘That suggests they travelled straight here from Tokyo. In which case they spent the week in Fukuoka, or at least somewhere in Kyushu. Either way, they will have had luggage, and we need to find it. Take their photos and ask around the inns in town,’ he ordered the detectives.

‘Chief,’ said one of the detectives, stepping forward. ‘Could I see that receipt a moment?’

It was the thin, dark-skinned man with large eyes who had been at Kashii beach. His overcoat was as battered as the clothes beneath it, his face unshaven, and his tie twisted and worn. His name was Jūtarō Torigai, and he was one of the veterans of Fukuoka Police.

Torigai unfolded the receipt with his thin and not particularly clean fingers and inspected it.

‘One person, it says. So he ate alone in the dining car,’ he muttered, as if to himself.

‘Well, yes,’ interjected the chief detective in a sceptical tone. ‘I imagine she didn’t feel like eating, so he went on his own.’

‘But . . .’ murmured Torigai. ‘But what?’

‘Well, Chief, it’s just . . . women, you know, they enjoy their food. And even if they’re not hungry, they’ll often get a little something just so they can keep their partner company. You know – a dessert, coffee, that kind of thing.’

The chief laughed. ‘You might have a point. But maybe this particular woman was so full she couldn’t even manage that.’

Torigai seemed to want to add something, then changed his mind. He put on his hat. With its crooked brim, it had clearly seen better days. Wearing it, he cut an even more unusual figure. He left the room, dragging the worn heels of his shoes across the floor.

With most of the detectives gone, the room felt oddly empty. Only one or two younger detectives remained, tending to the charcoal burner and occasionally refilling the chief ’s teacup.

The afternoon passed in this quiet manner. But, just as the sunlight coming through the windows was beginning to dwindle, there was a sudden flurry of footsteps down the corridor and a gaggle of people poured into the room. These were not the returning detectives but newspaper reporters.

‘Chief!’ cried one of the reporters. ‘We’ve just heard from our head office in Tokyo that a Mr Sayama, assistant section chief at Ministry X, has died in a love suicide pact. We ran right over here!’ It seemed the Tokyo newspapers had got wind of the telegram sent from the station that morning and issued an urgent dispatch to their Fukuoka bureaus.

The suitcase had been discovered by one of the detectives, who, late into the previous night, had made the rounds of all the inns within [the] city limits.

The next day, the story of the love suicide of Kenichi Sayama, assistant section chief at Ministry X, was splashed across the morning newspapers. In addition to the two biggest dailies in Japan, which were printed in the nearby cities of Kokura and Moji, the most prominent local newspapers also devoted large front-page columns to the incident.

This was no ordinary double suicide. The deaths were being linked with the ongoing bribery investigation at the ministry. All the newspapers assumed that Sayama’s death was in some way related to the scandal. They reported the official line from the public prosecutor in Tokyo that there had been no plans to summon Sayama as a witness. But various opinion pieces suggested that, knowing he would eventually be hauled in for questioning, he had committed suicide in a bid to prevent the scandal from reaching the upper ranks of the ministry.

These newspapers were piled on a corner of the chief ’s desk, but the chief was busy inspecting the contents of a small leather suitcase.

The suitcase had been discovered by one of the detectives, who, late into the previous night, had made the rounds of all the inns within Fukuoka city limits. The young detective in question had retrieved it from an inn called Tambaya, whose staff had confirmed that the man in the photo had indeed been a recent guest. The corresponding entry in the inn’s register read: ‘Taizo Sugawara, 32, office worker, 26 Minami Nakadori, Fujisawa City’. He had stayed there alone from the evening of the fifteenth until the night of the twentieth, when he had departed after settling his bill. On leaving, he had asked the inn to keep the case, saying he would be back for it later.

The suitcase contained various unremarkable items – toiletries, changes of shirts and underwear and a couple of magazines the man had probably bought on the train. There wasn’t even a notebook, let alone a suicide letter.

When the chief had finished looking through the suitcase, he turned to the young detective who had brought him this useful piece of evidence.

‘Did you say he stayed alone at the inn?’ he asked.

‘Yes, that’s what they told me.’

‘Hmm . . . odd. I wonder what the woman was up to then. Where could she have been all that time? The evening of the fifteenth is when they arrived at Hakata on the Asakaze. So he stayed alone at the inn until the night of the twentieth?’

‘Yes. They said he didn’t go out even once.’

‘And the woman didn’t drop by to see him at all?’ ‘No. He didn’t have any visitors.’

While the chief was asking his questions Jūtarō Torigai grabbed his old hat and slipped quietly from the room.

Outside, he boarded a tram. He gazed absent-mindedly at the scenery passing by the window until, a short while later, he reached his stop. His unhurried movements were like those of an old man.

He made his way down a series of streets, still walking at a leisurely pace. Eventually, he found himself slowly looking up to find a building whose sign read ‘Tambaya’. From the entrance he could see a well-polished corridor leading inside.

A clerk emerged and, seeing Torigai’s police ID, straightened up respectfully.

Torigai confirmed the details the young detective had reported to the chief. Then, his rugged cheeks wrinkling with a smile, he asked, ‘How did he seem to you when he got here?’

‘He was very tired. Went to bed straight after his dinner,’ replied the clerk.

‘Can’t have been much fun staying in all day. How did he pass the time?’

‘Well, he mainly sat around reading and dozing. He didn’t call the maid much. According to her, he was rather a gloomy sort. Seemed to be waiting for a phone call, as if it might come at any moment.’

‘A phone call?’ Torigai raised an eyebrow.

‘Yes. He told us he was expecting one. Asked us to put it through as soon as it came. I assumed that was why he stayed in the whole time.’

‘That does sound possible,’ nodded Torigai. ‘And did the phone call come?’

‘Yes. I answered it myself. It was on the twentieth, around eight in the evening. A woman, asking to speak to Mr Sugawara.’

‘A woman, you say . . . And she asked for Mr Sugawara, not Mr Sayama?’

‘That’s right. I knew he’d been waiting for the call the whole time, so I put her through straight away. We have a switchboard, and phones in all the rooms, you see.’

‘I don’t suppose you overheard the conversation?’

The clerk chuckled. ‘We’re not in the habit of listening in on our guests’ phone calls.’

Torigai gave a quiet sigh of disappointment. ‘What happened after that?’

‘The call must have lasted about a minute. As soon as it was finished, he sent for his bill, paid it and walked out, leaving his suitcase with us. I never would have dreamed he was off to commit suicide . . .’

Torigai rubbed his unshaven chin with one hand as he sifted through his thoughts.

After arriving on the fifteenth, Assistant Section Chief Sayama had done nothing but wait impatiently at the inn for this phone call from a woman. Then, when the call finally came, he had left immediately, and committed suicide later that very evening. It was quite a strange sequence of events.

Torigai still couldn’t shake the image of that dining-car receipt for ‘one person’ from his mind. Sayama had been waiting at the inn for his suicide partner to arrive – but why on earth did he have to wait five whole days?

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