What good is any story without its villain? And what sort of villain is scarier than a super villain who cannot be caught? In the 1980s, over a period of 17 months, Japan was held in the grip of terror by just such a powerful criminal force. The case would turn the country on its head, push police to their limits, dispel the notion that Japan was a completely safe place, and 30 years later remains just as unsolved and mysterious as it has ever been. This is the story of the notorious Monster with 21 Faces, an organization led by an enigmatic figure which proved to be just as untouchable and elusive as any super villain, which led the police on an unprecedented manhunt and whirlwind investigation for a crime they would never get to the bottom of, and which has gone on to become one of the most puzzling unsolved crimes in Japanese history.
The reign of terror began at 9:00pm on March 18, 1984, when two masked intruders armed with a pistol and a rifle broke into the home of Katsuhisa Ezaki, who was at the time the CEO of the enormous Osaka based Glico candy company, after having gained the key to his residence by stealing it from his mother. After cutting the phone lines and tying up Ezaki’s wife and daughter, the mysterious kidnappers whisked the CEO away to a secluded warehouse, from where a ransom demand was made to the company director for 1 billion yen (9.3 million dollars) and 100 kilograms (about 220 pounds) of gold bullion. Unfortunately for the kidnappers, three days later, before the ransom could be paid or it could even be discerned whether the company would be willing to pay it, Ezaki managed to make a break for freedom and escape. The crime was heavily covered in the news, partly due to the high profile victim and partly due to the fact that at the time such a violent home intrusion kidnapping was a crime virtually unheard of in Japan and it shocked a lot of people. Unfortunately, the criminals were not done by a long shot. For the police’s part, there were no leads, no clues, no suspects, no clear motive other than money, and no one had any idea of who was behind the crime.
A few weeks later, on April 10, 1984, several cars in the Glico company headquarters parking lot were mysteriously set ablaze by unknown arsonists, which ended up in quite a lot of damage to the surrounding area as well. Not long after that, on May 10, 1984, a threatening letter was found taped to a bottle of hydrochloric acid which was signed “The Monster with 21 Faces,” also variously translated as “The Phantom with 21 Faces” or “The Mystery Man with 21 Faces,” which was a reference to the villain of a series of popular detective novels by Edogawa Rampo. The letter claimed that they had laced Glico candies with potassium cyanide soda, with a string of letters following that threatened the poisoned candies would be released onto store shelves. This subsequently sparked a mass panic and prompted a massive product recall which cost the company an estimated 21 million dollars as well as prompting the lay-off of around 450 part-time workers even though no such deadly candies were found.
Police were still fumbling around trying to find any evidence of who was responsible, but was coming up totally empty handed. Additionally, there was no indication as to why the person or persons responsible had directed their vehemence squarely at Glico. The only evidence police were able to acquire was one piece of blurry security footage that seemed to show an unidentified man wearing a Yomiuri Giants (a popular Japanese professional baseball team) baseball cap placing presumably poisoned Glico chocolates on store shelves, a video that was made public and merely served to fan the flames of public panic. The shady person or persons responsible seemed to revel in the panic and unease they were causing, and began sending anonymous letters to torment the police and media. One letter to police, written in a thick Osaka accent, even teased them by outlining their whole method of entering the factory and read:
Dear dumb police officers. Don’t tell a lie. All crimes begin with a lie as we say in Japan. Don’t you know that? Why don’t you keep it to yourself? You seem to be at a loss. So why not let us help you? We’ll give you a clue. We entered the factory by the front gate. The typewriter we used is PAN-writer. The plastic container used was a piece of street garbage.
The odd letters continued to mount, taunting both the media and police until, as suddenly as it all had begun, a letter was issued on June 26 simply stating “We forgive Glico!” without any indication of why the company had been forgiven or indeed what the reasons behind the whole affair were in the first place. However, this would only mark the end of the harassment of Glico, not an end to the terror. The anonymous criminal syndicate, as police were becoming fairly certain more than one person had to be involved, then squarely focused its wrath on another confectionary manufacturer called Morinaga, as well as Marudai Ham and House Food Corporation, all major food companies in Japan. One letter ominously addressed to “Moms of the Nation” claimed that 21 packages of various Morinaga candies popular with children had been fatally poisoned with sodium cyanide and a subsequent police investigation luckily managed to locate all 21 of the tainted products before anyone could consume them. All of the candies indeed contained enough poison to kill, exactly as had been promised, which showed the group had the means to carry out their threats. Interestingly, the packages of the poisoned candies were all helpfully labelled “Danger: Contains Toxins,” perhaps showing that the Monster with 21 Faces wanted to give potential victims a sporting chance to avoid death. The public scare stirred up by the incident was profound, and Morinaga suffered severe financial loss as a result.
In the meantime, the Monster with 21 Faces had issued a statement saying they would cease their activities if they were paid a 50 million yen ransom. The money was to be dropped out of a speeding bullet train bound for the city of Kyoto on June 28 at a place specified along the way by a white flag. The money was actually gathered and sent on board the train with an undercover officer who hoped to at least get a glimpse of a suspect in the process. During the operation, the officer reported being shadowed and stared at by a mysterious man with short, permed hair and described as well-built and with “eyes like a fox,” who would thus become known as the “Fox-Eyed Man” and one of the prime suspects as a mastermind behind the operation. No white flag was ever seen along the route, and upon arrival at Kyoto station additional investigators began to follow the man and attempted to keep him under surveillance, but the mysterious figure managed to elude them even though they were right on his trail. Police described the way he did it as almost like disappearing into thin air.
Although threatening letters continued to come in, it seemed that the Fox-Eyed Man, who had overnight become Japan’s most wanted criminal, had vanished forever, but police would have another run in with him in November of 1984. The terrorists had yet again demanded a ransom, this time 100 million yen, which was to be dropped by a cash delivery van into a can under a white piece of cloth at a rest stop along the Meishin Expressway in an area called Otsu. The operation was set up as a sting, with police from six prefectures, including Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe, all coordinating their efforts to apprehend the criminals. Tailed by investigators, the van approached the designated drop off point and found the white cloth, but there was no can to be seen. Police suspected that The Monster with 21 Faces was toying with them and testing their response, and therefore dropped the whole operation. However, an hour earlier a patrol car from the local Shiga Prefectural Police Department which was uninvolved with the secret sting operation spotted a suspicious station wagon with its headlights off and engine running parked in the area near a white cloth. When the policeman had approached, he had caught a glimpse of none other than the Fox-Eyed Man himself wearing a wireless receiver and headphones before the mystery man sped off. This was probably the incident which had blown the lid off the whole sting operation. The car, later found to be stolen, would later be found abandoned at a railroad stop along with the radio transceiver with which the Fox-Eyed Man had been listening in on police communications and a vacuum cleaner of all things.
In December, in the wake of the botched sting operation, the Monster with 21 Faces began expanding its harassment campaign, and began threatening to poison the products of the popular cake and confectionary company Fujiya. Still without any solid leads or any suspects apprehended, the frustrated police issued wanted posters featuring a composite drawing of the Fox-Eyed Man, who they saw as instrumental in solving the case, but no one came forward with any information. However, it was around this time that a potential break was found in the baffling case. Tokyo police apprehended a man named Miyazaki Manubu, a whistle blower who had exposed Glico’s practice of dumping industrial waste into Osaka rivers in 1975. He had also been responsible for the resignation of a union leader over accounting irregularities pertaining to Glico. The reason Miyazaki had become a suspect was that police claimed that an audiotape made by Miyazaki at the time was very similarly worded to the mysterious letters from the Monster with 21 Faces. In addition, Miyazaki’s father was a local Yakuza (Japanese mafia) boss and he also just happened to bear a resemblance to the Fox-Eyed Man. It seemed like an exciting development, and it was widely reported in the media that Miyazaki was the enigmatic Fox-Eyed Man, but in the end the suspect’s alibis checked out and police were forced to release him. Miyazaki would waste no time in turning a profit on his experiences, going on to publish a book on the whole incident.
The case had by now become a media circus, attracting much attention from both national and international news outlets, and had also captured the imagination of the Japanese people as well as serving as sort of a wake-up call, marking a sort of turning point when this once peaceful and exceedingly safe society started to be seen as a more dangerous place prowled by vicious criminals. In the midst of this media frenzy, which often called attention to the lack of effectiveness of police in handling the case, in August of 1985, after making absolutely no headway in solving the case and with the Fox-Eyed Man continuing to be seemingly a specter that could not be caught, Shiga Prefecture Police Superintendent Yamamoto spectacularly killed himself by setting himself on fire. It was a shocking development in such a typically nonviolent country, making for sensational news at the time. The news of the horrific suicide prompted a taunting letter from the Monster with 21 Faces 5 days later which read:
Yamamoto of Shiga Prefecture Police Died. How stupid of him! We’ve got no friends or secret hiding place in Shiga. It’s Yoshino or Shikata (Police Superintendents from other prefectures) who should have died. What have they been doing for as long as one year and five months? Don’t let bad guys like us get away with it. There are many more fools who want to copy us. No-career Yamamoto died like a man. So we decide to give our condolence. We decided to forget about torturing food-making companies. If anyone blackmails any of the food-making companies, it’s not us but someone copying us. We are bad guys. That means we’ve got more to do than bullying companies. it’s fun to lead a bad man’s life. Monster with 21 Faces.
It would be the last letter to be received from the shadowy group, and they proceeded to sort of just vanish, although it is unclear if they ever turned their sights to other forms of crime as seems to be suggested in the final letter. Throughout the entire 17 month ordeal, not a single solid lead was uncovered, no one was ever arrested, and whoever the Fox-Eyed Man was still walks the streets a free man even despite the incredible amount of resources the police had poured into the investigation, involving over a million officers across the country who interviewed over 12,000 suspects. It was seen by many as demonstrating the glaring inefficiency of the Japanese police, and led to many changes and overhauls to numerous departments across the country. Since the apparent cessation of activities of the Monster with 21 Faces, there have been many similar copycat crimes tormenting food companies, but most of these have been solved and none are thought to have been linked to the original crime syndicate.
Although the statute of limitations ran out on the crime in June of 1995, the air of mystery surrounding the organization that had carried out the whole affair has gone on to spur a great deal of debate and conspiracy theories as to who the perpetrators could be, and it is a very popular topic of discussion for amateur sleuths around the country. Some think that the culprits were Japanese Yakuza groups such as the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Ichiwa-kai, who were engaged in a mob war at around the time of the incidents. Others point to the activities of extreme left-wing and right-wing groups or to attempts by unscrupulous investors to instigate a stock windfall through negative publicity brought down onto the food corporations from the media coverage of the crimes, after which they could buy up the stocks and sell them for an enormous profit when they bounced back. Some of the more far out theories thrown around is that the Monster with 21 Faces was comprised of North Korean secret agents trying to sabotage Japan’s economy or that it is some sort of nefarious top secret Illuminati-like organization with inscrutable motives that is perhaps linked to various crimes and conspiracies throughout Japan and perhaps even the world. Even after all of this time such is the mysterious allure of the Monster with 21 Faces that it has been the basis for numerous movies and TV shows and has been the inspiration for various famous villains in Japanese pop culture, such as the Laughing Man in the popular anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
The case has gone on to become one of the most famous unsolved crimes in Japanese history and the enigmatic group behind it an almost mythical entity in Japan, akin to that of the shadowy villain Keyser Söze in the film The Usual Suspects. Who were the Monster with 21 Faces? What did they want? Why did they target the companies they did? Was this a simple extortion case for money or was there something more to it? How many people were involved and to what extent did the cabal’s criminal activities extend? Are they still active somewhere? In light of the fact that nothing was ever learned during the entire investigation, the organization remains as mysterious as ever and we will likely never know the answer to these questions. They and the mysterious Fox-Eyed Man will live on in the public imagination and in the media, remaining an elusive conundrum that will likely continue to stir up discussion for some time to come.