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True crime. Casually done.

Japan’s Classic Heist: the 300 Million Yen Robbery

People are always asking me, “Simon, how can I become as successful in my criminal career as you?”. Before leaping into a stolen Ferrari loaded with millions of dollars in unmarked bills, I tell them that — just like if you want to be a successful musician or painter — you first have to study the classics. 

That’s exactly what we’re going to be doing today; all you criminal aspirants out there, be sure to take notes. So what makes a classic crime? Well, for the story really to get a hold on the popular imagination, it has to be a few things: successful, high-value, unusual, and if you want people to really root for you, non-violent too.

Today’s case checks all of those boxes, with bonus points for brazenness. It’s a vintage heist story which was equal parts ingenious and bizarre, and which for many decades remained the most expensive in Japanese history — the story of the 300 Million Yen Robbery.

The Setup

Shinjuku Tokyo

It’s early December 1968, and Tokyo is bustling as usual. We’re in the middle of Japan’s multi-decade heyday, when its factories were churning out the consumer electronics which won it a reputation as a futuristic wonderland for years to follow.

Business is booming, and the country’s rapidly expanding middle class are more flush with cash than anyone could have predicted just a few decades before. Of course, with that much money floating around, there are far more chances for opportunistic thieves to snatch some for themselves. 

That’s why on December 6th, the manager of the Nippon Trust Bank in Kokubunji received a letter demanding 3 million yen from the bank’s deposits be brought to a nearby location by one of the cashiers, before 5pm the next day. If the manager didn’t comply, both his home and workplace would be bombed. That’s some heavy reading for a Friday morning.

Regardless, the manager wasn’t keen to comply. He called the police, who sent around 50 officers to stake out the drop-off point. I’m no expert in police sting operations, but surely four dozen people suspiciously milling around would be enough to deter any decent thief. Unless of course they used high-level tactics like cutting eye holes into newspapers, of course.

In the end, nothing came of it, and the weekend passed without any further incident. I mean, the manager likely had a heart attack every time his kids slammed a cupboard door, but no actual bombing took place. The new work week rolled around, and everything went back to normal.

The Heist

Okay, so far it’s hardly a classic heist tale, but the best is yet to come. It’s now Tuesday the 10th of December. With the New Year holiday season approaching, companies are getting together their end-of-year bonuses for their employees. As I mentioned before, Japan’s collective wallet was pretty stuffed back then, so factories were offering more than a Starbucks gift voucher or cinema tickets. 

The Toshiba Corporation was having a particularly good run of it, meaning the total cash value of their employee bonuses was 300 million yen (and if you take a look at the title of today’s episode, you’ll sense some pretty heavy-handed foreshadowing right now). The bonus pot was roughly equivalent to 3.4 million US dollars in today’s money, meaning the four bank staff members accompanying it on its way to the Toshiba factory were a little on edge.

Things went smoothly enough, and they started to close in on their destination. But as they pulled down a road running behind Fuchuu Prison, the largest in Japan, something strange happened. A police motorbike raced up behind them and pulled in front of the transport car. The officer hopped off, and ran over to the car window.

He told the driver that the worst had happened: the bomb threat which was made the week prior had been carried out. The bank had been blown up, as was the house of the manager. Even worse — the police had reason to suspect their car was rigged with dynamite too! The officer crawled underneath to check it out for himself, and sure enough, the car was set to blow.

Before he could get clear, the bomb began to detonate — smoke billowed out from the underside of the vehicle. The bank staff ran for their lives, diving behind a wall at the prison, while the officer valiantly leapt behind the wheel to get the ticking time bomb clear of danger. 

The terrified security workers peeked over the wall to watch this brave officer risk his life to get the exploding sedan away from them. Very far away from them, in fact… So far away that it was now long out of sight. And still, no explosion — or not a very loud one, at least.

As the blood stopped rushing around their heads, the four men noticed something. Sitting on the road, right where the armored car had stopped, was an extinguished flare. It’s unclear exactly how long it took them to put all of the pieces together — and whether or not you’ve already done so yourself.

If you’ve yet to have your coffee today, I’ll spell it out: that was no police officer. It was a thief with an Ocean’s Eleven level of preparation, genius, and let’s face it: balls. And just like the bomb under the car was all smoke and mirrors, so too were the other explosions. None of them actually took place.

By the time these thoughts crystallized in the heads of the bank clerks, the money was long gone.

The Initial Investigation

Now, the crime might seem incredibly clever so far, but the thief left behind a plethora of evidence for the cops to go on. As the media frenzy around the story grew and grew, detectives were under pressure to transmute all those A-grade clues into an arrest or two. 

Investigation of The 300 Million Yen Robbery

First of all, the motorbike was left at the scene. Anyone giving it more than a cursory glance would instantly recognize it wasn’t a proper police vehicle at all; it was just a regular old Yamaha painted white. Checking the license plates proved to be a dead end, as the bike had been stolen shortly prior to the theft. Likewise, the megaphone strapped on to complete the disguise was traced back to a construction site where it had gone missing the week before. 

Similar dead ends were reached trying to trace the purchase of a hunting cap found inside the bike cover, which the fake policeman was accidentally dragging behind the bike; a can of cookies which was taped on to look like a police document box; the flare and a pair off magnets which were supposed to attach it to the car; and a newspaper snippet found stuck to the megaphone. 

Despite a total of 120 juicy pieces of evidence found at the crime scene, the abandoned armored car, and other key locations, no definitive progress was made. It’s thought that some of the evidence was deliberately strewn around to waste precious police time on a bunch of red herrings. All they knew for sure was that the robber had Type B blood, proven by the traces of saliva on the blackmail letter postage stamp.

All that despite the efforts of hundreds of detectives, and tens of thousands of other police employees. It’s even said that a few died of exhaustion while working the case, although that sounds a little bit over-the-top. As does the fact that the whole probe cost three times as much as the actual value of the cash stolen, but that part is very much true.

The Fallout

Much of the hefty price tag came from the intense campaign of public interviews which the police conducted in the local area. Using a photo fit image sketched up from the statements of the bank employees, they went door to door and interviewed all the college-aged residents of the area to see if they knew the thief. 

the 300 Million Yen Robbery heist suspect
The suspect

If that sounds like a pretty scatter ball approach to you, then you’re pretty much spot on. Consider the fact that the total list of potential suspects topped out at over 100,000 at its peak. That means if you even just picked one person at random, you’d have a 0.001% chance of getting the right guy (if he was even on the list to begin with).

One suspect, however, stood out to the police. This was “Boy S”, as the media called him. He was reported to be the son of a motorbike police officer, and leader of the infamous Tachikawa Group youth gang — notorious teenaged carjackers and joyriders.

Boy S was just 19, and not only was he a known delinquent, but he also looked a lot like the photo fit. The police took the four bank employees to visit the home of the suspect, and they confirmed that there was a close resemblance.

Whether or not Boy S really did commit the crime, we’ll never know. He committed suicide using potassium cyanide pills that same night. His father insisted on his son’s innocence, and Boy S was cleared of any wrongdoing posthumously. The evidence bore out that conclusion in the end too, as his handwriting and blood type were not a match for the culprit’s.

In the end, the bank employees admitted that they never actually got a good enough look at the perpetrator to feel confident in the photo fit. They likely just felt heavily pressured into coming up with something useful, after their bizarrely comical blunder at the prison.

The Theories

And that’s where the facts pretty much leave off with this case. But as we know, that’s when fiction comes to fill in the gaps — or speculation at least. The case had enough public attention to stoke theories for decades to come; kind of like Japan’s DB Cooper, minus the parachute jump.

The policeman’s son angle really stuck, partly because it had the most dramatic appeal of all the possibilities. Those who investigate from this angle will point out the timely suicide of the young suspect, and the fact that the cyanide had actually been purchased by his father. What’s more, the only fingerprints found on the newspaper used to wrap the poison belonged to the father — could he have possibly coerced his teenaged son into suicide for bringing his detective colleagues to their doorstep? 

It’s maybe a little far-fetched. If you know anything about the Japanese legal system, you’ll know that even being suspected of a crime can completely ruin a person’s life. Extreme psychological pressures and lengthy detentions are used to force confessions out of suspects, upon which the country’s farcical 99% conviction rate is based! If Boy S chose to opt out of all that, he wouldn’t have been the first, nor the last.

Even if the suicide was legitimate, there remains the fact that another member of Boy S’s carjacking gang — who also had the wrong blood type and handwriting — was discovered to be living quite comfortably in the years after the incident. The police never could trace the source of the money he was using to buy fancy clothes and a nice car, so it’s still up for debate. Could it have been a joint effort by the gang, who went on to split the money?

That seems like the most likely scenario so far, although I still get the feeling that when faced with utter confusion, mounting costs, and immense public pressure, pinning the whole thing on a gang of teenage delinquents might have just been the most convenient conclusion for the police. So there’s just one more theory worth mentioning.

In 1998, a magazine named Shukan Hoseki reported that they had finally cracked the case after 30 long years. They tracked down a 55-year old man named Yuji Ogata, who told them how he and his accomplices had smuggled the stolen cash cases past police road blocks, before splitting up and spreading out across Japan.

A convincing narrative… buuut, just as Japan started to believe one of their oldest and boldest cold cases would be closed, Ogata’s ex wife went on record saying he was a habitual liar. What’s more, his family and friends recounted that the perpetually broke Ogata-san had asked them for money in the weeks and months after that fateful day in 1968. Hardly the actions of a newly-minted millionaire. 

The story was obviously just the work of a total nonsense merchant looking to make a quick buck off the crime. But I already knew that of course… See, in truth, it was me — I committed the Great Japanese Bomb Hoax Robbery of 1968. And you can find all the details in my new memoir, On the Lam in Japan, just £9.99 plus postage and packaging.

Wrap-up

And that’s pretty much all for today folks. In reality we’ll probably never know who the man behind Japan’s most audacious heist really was. There is still some hope of seeing a tidy conclusion, but not through an arrest; the statute of limitations expired in 1975, and even all civil liability for the crime ended in 1988. The culprit could go on TV tomorrow and confess, with zero legal consequences. But, when you’re sitting flush on a pile of cash, on a tropical; island somewhere, why bother?

Now, there’s one last thing to clear up — I know what I said in the intro, but if you really are looking to get your own pile of cash please don’t replicate anything you heard here today, just buy a lottery ticket. And remember that if you do get arrested for making bomb threats, “A YouTube personality told me to do it” is not a valid defense in court.”

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