The little bowl of death

Coachloads of ghoul-seekers flock to the scene of the 'Wakayama Curry Incident'. Thousands apply every day for the handful of tickets to witness Japan's most celebrated trial. In the dock is Masumi Hayashi, an aloof and wealthy woman accused of killing four people and attempting to poison her entire village with a dish she served at the local fête. For this was not just a case of cooking without due care and attention. On the contrary, the recipe was meticulously prepared. Only the finest spices were used. With one very special ingredient... arsenic
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All over the world, from 10 Rillington Place to the Manson House, the sites of grisly murders have attracted gawpers and ghouls. But only in Japan would they arrive in coaches, laid on for the occasion by a local tour company. "The buses come right into the village," says Mr Kagawa, who runs a pancake restaurant down the road from where the curry poisoning occurred in the village of Sonobe in western Japan. "You see the old ladies walking past in their best clothes, 50 or 60 of them at once, like they're visiting a famous temple."

First of all the pilgrims look over the patch of wasteground where the notorious curry was served at the 1998 village festival. Then they walk 100 yards down the road and peer through the fence and the police ribbons at the shell of the big house by the stream, where Masumi Hayashi used to live. Handwritten signs implore sightseers to stay away and to leave the locals in peace; but, of course, they are ignored.

After dark, the ghoulish old ladies give way to young men, who drive over after a night's drinking in the city of Wakayama across the river. No doubt they are responsible for the violent graffiti on Mrs Hayashi's garden wall ("Die! Die! Die!") which is renewed as fast as the neighbours whitewash over it. Perhaps it was one of them who climbed into the house one night in February and set fire to it, gutting the interior.

On a windy morning last week I paid a visit myself, and stood staring at it for a quarter of an hour, willing it to yield up its secrets, clues to what may have happened there. But the house gives nothing away. Twenty months after they occurred, after endless newspaper and magazine articles, TV programmes, and two dozen trial hearings, many people believe they know who carried out the four murders here, known as the Wakayama curry incident. But no one has a convincing explanation as to why.

The matsuri or summer festival is the Japanese equivalent of the English church fête - the chance, once a year, for the community to unite in food and fun and celebrate its togetherness. In Sonobe, the driving force behind it was Takatoshi Taninaka, the energetic chairman of the local neighbourhood association. It was Mr Taninaka who asked Mr Kagawa and his wife to give over their yard for the festival preparations.

Members of the local Women's Association divided up the job of cooking - for, just as a fête would not be fête without scones, fairy cakes and digestives, so certain traditional foods are essential to a successful matsuri. There is oden, a watery hot pot of fish, meat and bean curd. There are takoyaki, grilled balls of batter and chopped octopus. And then there is the matsuri food par excellence - a dish of lumpy, brown gunge, which no Indian would recognise, known in Japan as curry rice.

The Kagawas' 34-year-old daughter, Megumi, was there that day, 25 July 1998, and noticed nothing unusual about the curry. "It was good," she says now. "I mean, I thought it was a bit spicy, but then curry's supposed to be hot." Some people ate their fill on the patch of wasteground where the festival was being held, while others bought a tray of curry to take away.

Back home, Megumi soon began to feel sick, and started vomiting. A neighbour stopped by to report that other people were doing the same, including Mr Taninaka, whose wife found him lying on the sofa, clutching his heart. A local doctor diagnosed mass food poisoning; outside, ambulances shuttled to and fro taking the curry eaters to hospital.

The next day the doctors changed their diagnosis to one of cyanide poisoning. Some 70 people were in hospital by then, including Megumi Kagawa, whose face, according to her mother, Kazuko, "swelled up like a balloon - she looked like a balloon with eyes". And Mr Taninaka, along with his deputy village head and two local children, one girl of 16 and one boy of 10, were dead.

By the time the truth came out a week later, Sonobe, and indeed Japan itself, was in a state of stunned disbelief. Hordes of police descended on the village, along with hundreds of journalists. The lethal agent, it turned out, was not cyanide, but powdered arsenic which was deliberately sprinkled into the curry pot. "This wasn't about hatred of particular individuals," says Shogo Kakimoto, of the welfare department of Wakayama prefectural government. "Anyone could have eaten from the curry pot, there could have been hundreds poisoned. It's so hard to believe that a human being could do something like this, potential mass killing at random." And the worst thing was that it had to have been an inside job.

For two months, as the police carried out their investigations, rumour stalked the village. The Kagawas noticed that local customers had stopped coming to their pancake restaurant. For some people, the fact that their daughter had narrowly escaped being killed was not enough - they were suspected because they had provided their yard for the curry cooking, but failed to turn up at the festival themselves. But from the beginning, according to people in Sonobe, suspicion focused upon the occupants of the big house by the stream: Masumi Hayashi and her husband, Kenji.

In court, Mrs Hayashi doesn't look anything special - a tall, elegantly dressed woman, looking surprisingly relaxed in a black trouser suit. Within the village community though, the couple stood out for the simple reason that they made so little effort to fit in.

"No one knew her at all," says Mrs Kagawa. "In a village like this, that's very unusual." For a start there was their wealth - the house is nothing special by European standards but with its plot of land, complete with landscaped Japanese garden, it is the biggest in the neighbourhood. The Hayashis drove a BMW, and Masumi is accused of honking its horn impatiently at cars which got in her way. And there were bitter complaints about her alleged habit of dumping rubbish in the river.

The Hayashis held themselves aloof, entertaining friends from outside the village at mah jong parties at which large sums were rumoured to have been wagered. "Even when the small children played near her house, she didn't let her kids play with them," says Mrs Kagawa. "In three years, she never tried to communicate with anyone, so local people didn't let her into the community." In Japan, a society in which even ghoulish old ladies travel in organised groups, belonging has a moral dimension. To many Japanese, Masumi's "selfishness" is retrospective confirmation of her general wickedness.

The family's affluence was also difficult to explain - both Hayashis had difficulty walking, the result of vague accidents a few years before. Masumi worked as an insurance seller; Kenji was unemployed, but had formerly run a termite extermination business. This seems to have been the detail which drew the police's attention to them.

Finally, early in October 1998, 30 detectives, pursued by 500 journalists, obediently acting on police tip-offs, turned up to arrest Mr and Mrs Hayashi. Most of the charges had been

leaked well in advance by police and prosecutors who found themselves under pressure to make an arrest, but they were still sensational. Both suspects were charged with (and have pleaded guilty to) fraudulent insurance claims based on exaggerations of their injuries, the source of their surprising wealth. Masumi was charged with the four curry murders and attempted murder, also by arsenic poisoning, of two others. One is a friend and mah jong partner who fell ill after dining with the Hayashis in 1997; the other, staggeringly, is her husband, Kenji. The prosecutors claim to have the cases stitched up.

Despite her aloofness, Masumi was involved in the preparation for the festival and had access to the curry pots, although she ate none of the lethal dish herself. Investigators say they have found minuscule traces of arsenic both in Masumi's hair and in her house; scientific analysis suggests it has the same chemical profile as the poison found in the curry and that which Kenji once used to exterminate termites.

The trial has been in progress since last May; allowing for appeals to higher courts, it could drag on for 10 years. But in effect, and despite her protestations of innocence, it is over. Japanese courts do not try suspects, they merely rubber stamp police investigations. Of those charged of serious crimes in Japanese courts, 99.9 per cent are found guilty.

But two things make this different from the average case. Unlike nine out of 10 suspects, and despite months of interrogation and hostile police leaks to the media, Masumi has never confessed to the murders. Also, several lawyers say the evidence against her is wholly circumstantial. Her presence at the festival proves nothing; traces of poison in her hair could have been carried by steam from the curry after someone else poisoned it; traces in the house might have been left over from Kenji's exterminating days. Even if it is the same type as that found in the curry, much of the arsenic in Japan has a common source: factories in China.

Most troubling of all is the complete absence of motive. The prosecutors want to show that Masumi had a history of temper tantrums - having been snapped at by members of the Women's Association for some oversight in the curry preparations, it is alleged, she took it on herself to teach the village a lesson. "There was no target in particular," suggests Mr Kagawa, the pancake man. "Maybe she didn't think it would kill, just give people a stomach ache"

At the courthouse last week, one spectator told me: "I still wonder whether she did it or not. I want to persuade myself it's her. I think of how selfish she was, and how there's no one else who could have done it. But she's never confessed. Even now, I've seen no hard proof." The speaker was Chizuko Taninaka, widow of the murdered village head - of all people, the one you would least expect to take a tolerant view. "I want some certainty," she says. "Until this happened I believed in human beings... but now I've come to realise that there are people who cannot be understood."

It seems almost certain that Masumi Hayashi will be convicted. There is a very good chance, many years from now, that she will hang. But still the simplest and most difficult question will be unanswered: how could anybody do such a thing?