A Corporate Kidnapping Case Confirms That the Bad Times Are Already Here

A newly translated best-selling Japanese crime novel set in the 1990s fictionalizes the real-life kidnapping of a candy company CEO. It’s as comprehensive a critique of postwar Japanese society as can fit in a mystery-genre story.

Advertisement for Glico candy in Osaka, Japan. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the night of March 18, 1984, in a wealthy neighborhood of Osaka, Japan, masked intruders pulled the president of the Glico candy corporation out of his bathtub, took him to a warehouse hideout, and demanded an outrageous sum for his return. Three days into his confinement, the president escaped with the ransom unpaid, yet the letters from the would-be extorters persisted. At the time, Japanese police rarely failed to solve major crimes, but here they were clueless. The criminal group signed their letters “The Mystery Man with 21 Faces” and made frequent threats and taunts about the “idiot police” and their incompetence.

They threatened to release cyanide-laced Glico candy onto store shelves, and soon Glico halted production in a panic. “The Mystery Man” repeated the poisoning threat with the Morinaga candy company, but this time they made good: nearly two dozen boxes of cyanide-laced Morinaga chocolates were found in grocery stores across the country. (The boxes were cheekily labeled as poison, and no one was hurt.) Ransom drops were arranged, but “The Mystery Man” never appeared to collect them. Commentators called it a new kind of crime, one closer to performance art that remained outside the profit motive. Who were they? What did they really want? Suddenly, in August 1985, the group wrote a parting letter — “It’s fun to live a bad man’s life” — and disappeared. They were never found and, according to police, never collected any money. To this day, the Glico-Morinaga case remains one of Japan’s most notorious unsolved crimes.

Kaoru Takamura, one of the first women crime novelists to find commercial and critical success in Japan and thus dubbed the “Queen of Mysteries,” fictionalizes the case in her thousand-plus-page Lady Joker, which was originally published in Japan in 1997. It is only now available in English, in two volumes, the first time that any of Takamura’s fiction has been translated. In Japan the novel sold more than one million copies and is considered a new classic, a sensational true-crime tale that’s as comprehensive a critique of postwar Japanese society as can fit in a mystery-genre story. Lady Joker is rich with procedure and detail, each page describing and indicting the society that creates conditions ripe for antisocial crime.

Yet Lady Joker also matches the best of modern suspense fiction in action and plotting. In Takamura’s reimagining of the case, she builds her own Japan, with institutions parallel to those of the real case. Instead of Glico and the candy industry, there’s Hinode Beer and the domestic lager market; instead of the Mystery Man with 21 Faces, there’s Lady Joker.

Volume 1 traces the germ of the Lady Joker gang’s crime to a letter sent by a disgruntled ex-Hinode Beer factory worker in 1947, and the slow buildup to the kidnapping implicates the postwar rebuilding process of Japan’s manufacturing sector, several kinds of discrimination, socioeconomic anxiety, and unchecked and unfeeling corporate power. (More personal motives such as revenge play their part, too.) Volume 2 concentrates on the manhunt for Lady Joker after the kidnapping and the interplay between police, press, Hinode Beer, and the criminal gang, as Lady Joker’s exploits become increasingly erratic. The criminals are boxed in, but, through their own actions, so is everyone else.

The members of Lady Joker are five alienated men who run into each other weekly at the horse-racing track: an aging pharmacist, a young machinist, a truck driver, a middling financier, and a corrupt police detective. They make their plans between bets and name themselves “Lady Joker” in reference to the truck driver’s severely disabled daughter, Lady, who accompanies him to the racetrack. “If a joker is something nobody wants,” one member says, recalling the father calling Lady his joker card, “what better way to describe the lot of us?” These men are not career criminals, and besides the exhausted truck driver, they do not seem particularly desperate. Yet all five, when confronted with the idea of blackmailing the country’s largest domestic beer company and kidnapping its figurehead, think, in the words of the pharmacist, “My life happens to have brought me to this.” An atmosphere of dissatisfaction and creeping callousness in these scenes explains why all it takes is a gentle push.

Takamura’s writing, in Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell’s translation, has a hypnotic plainness to it, framing even the most electric facts of these theatrical crimes in the mundane specificity of the material world and historical precedence. The chapters toggle among seven characters: a Lady Joker member, the Hinode CEO, a citizen-victim, two newspaper reporters, and two police detectives, one straight and one corrupt. Takamura’s omniscient narrator, who presents the action in close-third-person perspective from each chapter’s protagonist, lingers on bureaucratic procedures and special language within their workplaces — corporations, newsrooms, and police precincts — and peppers the story with excerpts from newspaper articles, police scanner chatter, internal memos, and stock market updates. The men are so defined by their environments that their voices and personalities blend together. This uniformity from chapter to chapter effectively creates a world of men who, no matter their station, are all bent by similar forces.

Is Kyosure Shiroyama, the Hinode CEO kidnapped in Volume 1, a moral man? Compulsively mild-mannered and measured, he wrestles with questions of his own culpability, but his actions are mostly of the cover-your-ass variety. To punctuate one of his minor epiphanies about his own responsibility, the narrator observes, “His anguish was nothing more than what filled the inconsequential heart of a mere human being.” The novel is constructed such that by the middle of Volume 2, as Shiroyama wields his power to avoid wider reckoning with corporate corruption, it’s easy to forget that he was once a prisoner of Lady Joker, with his limbs bound for several days.

Not much has been written in English about Takamura, but she is known to be an austere workaholic who once told an interviewer that she wants readers to “struggle for their pleasure.” Before Takamura became a novelist, she worked as a financial trader, and she takes the money behind the spectacle of these ransom drops seriously, imagining that Lady Joker and Hinode have made a backroom deal to pay off the gang out of sight of the police or press. The wacky abandoned payments of the Glico-Morinaga case, in her telling, are diversions from the real actions of capital. The descriptions of how Hinode keeps the information of the flow of the real money on a need-to-know basis — including details of their new Western-style risk management system — form a damning argument about how a corporation, by definition, can serve no higher purpose than self-preservation.

Takamura expands the pressure of economic forces by doing something startling in a historical crime novel: she moves the action up a decade, to her contemporary moment. In Lady Joker, the kidnapping of Hinode’s CEO takes place on March 18, 1994. This is not unlike if an American author today novelized the Boston Marathon bombings by setting the action in 2023. The transposition allows Takamura to take Lady Joker’s extortion campaign out of the era of Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” — a period that stretched from the end of World War II to 1991 — and into its long hangover. Instead of unnerving the good times, the corporate kidnapping case now confirms that the bad times are already here. The economy is worsening. Globalization is encroaching.

In one of her meticulously rendered scenes of corporate life in Hinode, the company feels immense pressure to finalize a distribution deal with Limelight, the largest American beer company. (Takamura is fantastic at inventing names.) Limelight has all the leverage. The members of Lady Joker know there are people out there making money, but they are, predictably, those with vast capital and the lack of shame to use it as a club. The Lady Joker crimes are, in this light, an attempt by spectators to join a game in progress.

As Volume 2 proceeds, the reporters, similarly spectators so far, begin connecting the Lady Joker case and Hinode to underworld crime organizations, ultranationalist politicians, stock price manipulations, and illegal loan arrangements. Reporters and sources associated with this larger story start to go missing. More powerful criminals — it’s not always clear who or how — begin leveraging Lady Joker for their own gains. The petty criminals who find themselves in over their heads is a cliché, but there is not a character in Lady Joker that sees the full picture. That these financial crimes and underworld figures stay in the novel’s deep background raises whether they are forces a suspense genre plot, no matter its scope and comprehensiveness, can accommodate. The two central police officers are so tense from the lack of resolution near the end of the novel that they invite violence in their own lives seemingly just for the release.

Lady Joker was Takamura’s final crime novel. Her first had been published in 1990, and in the course of those seven years before Lady Joker’s release she had become the “Queen of Mysteries.” But she was dissatisfied with the form. According to Amanda C. Seaman, a professor of Japanese language and literature at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Takamura began to find “that detective fiction did not allow her the scope to explore the deep problems of guilt and punishment that now interested her.” She has since written novels about powerful conservative families and impoverished farmers.

There is guilt in Lady Joker, but it arrives too little, too late. More often there’s punishment, meted out dispassionately according to the needs of capital. In the final pages, nearly everyone suffers, even (and especially) those who decide to make a last-minute stand. But the jolting events of the novel open some doors, too, as they must in a contingent universe. The remaining journalists start to write more freely about financial corruption than they ever had, increasingly unafraid of intimidation, both political and criminal, “so long as they caught the right moment and momentum. And apparently that time was now.” The journalists are embarrassed that it’s taken a murder — maybe several — to get them to this freer place. Lady Joker is a long lament that those with power, encumbered and insulated by systems that prioritize an unjust status quo, delay reckoning by design. This delay gives more time for more people to act on where their life has happened to bring them.