Yoshie Shiratori, The Man Who Escaped Prison Four Times
Here's the story of Yoshie Shiratori, also known as the Harry Houdini of Japan. Let's investigate the most amazing Japanese prison break ever!Stories
In the US, around one in every 200 people are incarcerated. But out of the staggering 1.9 million felons in the prison system, only 3% ever manage to break out and most of those are from low-security facilities. However, in Japan, a prisoner named Yoshie Shiratori became infamous for escaping maximum security incarceration not once, not twice, but a whopping four times.
And, believe it or not, two of those times he used a bowl of miso soup to do it! Unsurprisingly, his story’s pretty crazy. Let's find out why no jail could hold the incredible escape artist.
Who Was Yoshie Shiratori?
Born in Aomori, Japan, in 1907, Yoshie Shiratori never knew his mother, and his father tragically passed when he was just two years old. Little orphan Shiratori was adopted by a new family who owned a tofu shop. However, it was no freeboard. Every day he’d have to work from sunrise to sunset making tofu. Which he did, until by the age of 21 he had a wife of his own and three beautiful children.
Yet, Shiratori dreamed of giving his children a better life, so he left the tofu shop to work as a fisherman. But life aboard the fishing boats was grueling. Many crewmates relied on, “unsavory vices” to get by and Shiratori’s became gambling. The rush he got knowing one big win could change his family’s life forever got too much.
But he squandered every yen he made until soon he was borrowing money to settle his gambling debts, then resorting to petty crimes to pay back the money he’d borrowed. Even with the best intentions, Shiratori’s situation spiraled into desperation.
In 1933, at the age of 25, Shiratori and an accomplice entered a general goods store in the city of Aomori, but they weren’t there for light shopping. They were there to rob the place. However, a concerned shopper named Takezo stepped in, defended the store, and chased them down the street.
Only, there was a scuffle between the three men where Takezo got seriously injured and devastatingly lost his life. To what degree Shiratori was involved, we can’t be sure. We do know however that both Shiratori and his accomplice fled and went into hiding.
Two years later, Aomori police eventually tracked down Shiratori’s accomplice, who immediately snitched on Shiratori’s whereabouts. After catching word of this, Shiratori had two choices, he could run and pray the law, or his conscience, never caught up with him, or he could be the bigger man and turn himself in.
He chose the latter and put his fate in the hands of the law. Big mistake. After going to the police, he realized they were less interested in the truth and more interested in getting someone, or anyone, to pay for Takezo’s untimely passing. And, it seemed, Shiratori was their number one target.
Despite some intense physical interrogation tactics by the police, however, Shiratori told them nothing. But that in itself was enough to find him guilty and in 1936, he was sent to Aomori prison.
First Escape: Aomori Prison
If life outside Aomori was hard for Shiratori, life inside was even harder. His violent reputation had prompted the guards to give him extra special punishments. Shiratori was treated worse than any other inmate, and after enduring that for some time he was thrown in solitary confinement, where he spent four long months all alone.
But not quite alone, as his guards would regularly stop by to rough him up. Day in and day out, the violent treatment continued. Then, early in the morning of June 18th, 1936, the police chief’s house phone unexpectedly rang. But there was a phone call to the police chief that morning. It was from the guard on duty.
At 5:30 AM, he’d noticed something looked off about Shiratori’s bed and called out to check on him. There was no response. So, he’d called again, louder. Still no response. In a fit of rage, the guard had marched in ready to teach the disrespectful prisoner a lesson. Only, when he pulled back the blanket he realized the bed was full of pillows! Shiratori had gone.
Upon hearing that, the police chief immediately ordered a search party to set out and look for the jilting jailbird. Yet, hours later they returned empty-handed. How had this happened? Shiratori had been held in solitary confinement day and night. It seems impossible he could’ve slipped out totally undetected yet somehow, he had.
Shiratori had been spending almost every second of every day alone but, rather than wasting that time, he’d quietly studied the guards. He’d figured out that after passing his cell, it took them about 15 minutes to circle back around. It was the window of opportunity. The next issue was the hulking iron door he was locked behind.
However, Shiratori had a solution for that too. When he took a bath, he was given a bucket with a metal wire handle to wash with. He secretly removed that handle so he could use it as a makeshift lockpick!
Just beneath the lock of his cell door was a small window that guards used to pass his meals through. By sticking his hand out that window, Shiratori could reach the lock and try to pick it. It must’ve taken months of persistent trial and error, but eventually, Shiratori cracked it.
Once it was done, he jimmied the lock, made his bed up to look like he was still sleeping, and then waited for the guard to pass. At this point, he had 15 minutes to dash out, pick another lock at the end of the corridor, and make his getaway. Luckily Shiratori didn’t have to try and pick that one blind so, amazingly, he pulled it off. Not bad for a first-time breakout.
As the days passed, word spread around Aomori about a vicious criminal who’d escaped isolation and was now stalking the streets looking for his next victim. In reality, Shiratori had run into the mountains and was living off whatever berries he could forage.
But after three days, he had to head back towards the town in search of supplies. As an escaped con, he couldn’t just walk into a store and buy them, he had no money, and someone could recognize him. Instead, he resorted to pre-prison tactics: stealing. But he got caught red-handed trying to pilfer supplies from a hospital.
Shiratori begged for forgiveness, saying he’d only escaped because of how brutally he’d been treated by the guards. But nobody cared. He was sent back to Aomori prison, only this time with a life sentence. With the new sentence, Shiratori was transferred from Aomori to Miyagi prison where he spent three years before moving again to Kosuge, in Tokyo.
But he didn't try to break out again; he kept his head down and did as he was asked. That is because Shiratori actually had a good relationship with the guards, especially the head guard, Ryomiya Kobayashi, who saw Shiratori as a model prisoner.
As the years rolled by, life at Kosuge was about as good as prison can be. However, by 1941, Japan was drawn into World War 2, and prisoners were evacuated out of Tokyo. Shiratori was moved once again, this time to Akita prison. And there things really took a turn for the worse.
Second Escape: Akita Prison
In Akita, years of good behavior didn’t mean anything. Shiratori’s reputation as a vicious man outside and a disappearing delinquent inside had followed him, and the guards at Akita didn’t take well to that. They placed him in a special cell specifically designed for escapists.
The ceiling was too high to reach, and the walls were too smooth to climb. Aside from a tiny skylight on the roof, there was practically no sunlight. There wasn’t even a window to pass his food through. On top of that, Akita was bitterly cold.
The guards forced Shiratori to stay in Seiza, a kneeling position, all day. If they caught him disobeying orders, they’d teach him a painful lesson. Despite his terrible predicament though, Shiratori stayed surprisingly resolute. He taunted the guards, threatening to escape on their watch so they’d get punished.
In response, they became even more brutal. All the while, Shiratori was scheming his next escape and this one would be far more ambitious than the first. The morning of June 15th, 1942 was wet from a heavy storm the night before. The guards began their usual rounds banging on cell doors to wake the prisoners. But when they rattled Shiratori’s door there was no response.
By now, their mutual hatred had peaked so this was no surprise. The guard got ready to administer Shiratori’s first lesson of the day. Except when he swung the door open, the room was empty! Against all odds, Shiratori had broken out from a cell specially designed to keep him inside and only he knew how.
Immediately, the guards contacted the district police, who set up a cordon around the area to catch the prisoner. Last time, Shiratori had shown up after just a couple of days. With enough patience, he’d mess up again.
Or so they thought. Days went by with no sign of Shiratori. Days became weeks and weeks became months. It wasn’t until three months after his escape that an unlikely associate heard a knock at the door in the dead of night.
When Ryomiya Kobayashi opened his door he found a thin, frail man shivering in the cold. It was Shiratori. Kobayashi had heard of Shiratori’s escape but never would’ve dreamed that he’d show up at his house. He invited him inside, fed him, and gave him tea.
You’re probably wondering why an escaped prisoner would visit his former keeper, but Kobayashi had been kind to Shiratori and he had nowhere else to turn. The journey from Akita to Kobayashi’s house in Tokyo is an astonishing 339 miles.
Shiratori explained that he’d walked the whole way under the cover of darkness to avoid re-capture, eating whatever he could forage or steal. Once he’d arrived in Tokyo he’d asked anyone that would listen if they knew where Kobayashi lived. Eventually, he got lucky.
Kobayashi was stunned. He knew Shiratori was honest, but he also knew he couldn’t stay here. Together they agreed Shiratori would turn himself in at Kosuge police station and give evidence of his poor treatment at Akita. Hopefully, they’d take pity on him and he’d get a fairer trial than before. So, that’s what he did. Only, things didn’t exactly go according to plan.
Shiratori told the judge about the brutal punishments he’d suffered at Akita the isolation, the kneeling, the violence. But the judge only cared about one thing: how he’d escaped the cell. Shiratori sighed. It looked like coming clean was the only way to help his case.
Shiratori had two rather unique skills most people don’t have. Firstly, he could dislocate almost every joint in his body. Which made him really good at squeezing through tight spaces. If a gap was big enough for his head, he could wriggle the rest of his body through and the little skylight in his cell was just about big enough.
But if the skylight was really high up, how did Shiratori reach it to squeeze his body through? That’s where his second skill comes in. He was outrageously strong, way stronger than the average human.
The walls to his cell were deliberately smooth so you couldn’t climb them vertically, but the cell was so small that Shiratori could press his palms against one wall and his feet against the opposite one and shimmy up horizontally.
The only issue was removing the skylight. Luckily, Mother Nature had given him a head start. The wooden frame holding it in place was old and rotten. With enough pressure, Shiratori could force it slightly open. Night after night he’d scale the wall to push the skylight a little further.
Eventually, it got loose enough that he could push his whole head through, so he knew his body could follow suit. All that was left to do was wait for a heavy storm so the guards wouldn’t hear him scampering across the rooves, and make a break for it.
Everyone in the courtroom was bewildered. Everyone, that is, except the judge. He added 3 years to Shiratori’s life sentence and sent him back to jail. But how do you add to a life sentence? Well, a life sentence doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of your life.
It’s indefinite, but most have a clause called parole, where the prisoner makes a case for their release by showing evidence they’ve changed. If Shiratori got paroled he’d still have to serve three years after having his life sentence dropped. Hopefully, you never need that information again.
Shiratori was prepared to go back to jail after all, he was still a criminal. Only, the cold at Akita had got to him. So, he asked the judge if he could do his time in Tokyo where it was warmer. The judge laughed, and instead sent Shiratori to Abashiri in the very north of Japan. And if you thought Akita sounded bad, you haven't learned anything yet.
Third Escape: Abashiri Prison
Abashiri was so numbingly cold your breath froze against your eyebrows. At the age of 35, Shiratori was thrown into a bitter cell in nothing more than thin summer clothes. His new guards were taking no chances this time, cuffing both his hands and feet and banning him from working outside his cell like the other prisoners.
Because he didn’t work, Shiratori was only given half the amount of food that his fellow prisoners ate, which was basic at best. Japanese prison food mainly consisted of a bowl of rice and some salty miso soup.
Shiratori’s only connection to the outside world was a small surveillance window in the door of his cell. Shiratori ignored any instructions or demands the guards made of him. Once a model prisoner, now he lay bound in his cell totally unresponsive.
One morning, a passing guard saw Shiratori on his knees face down with the handcuffs removed from his wrists and laid out in front of him. They charged in, searched his cell, and found a piece of metal wire wrapped in paraffin paper. How he’d got hold of this nobody knew.
But one thing was clear, Shiratori was sending them a message. He could escape no matter what they did to him. The guards were shaken. It was on them to send a message in response. Shiratori’s handcuffs were replaced with new, far more burdensome ones.
The new cuffs weighed over 40 lbs and were fastened behind his back with a thick metal bolt that needed two men to tighten. In other words, there was no keyhole for him to pick. Washing or bathing became impossible, as removing the cuffs meant filing through the metal. All he could do was sit there.
As the weeks and months went by, the cuffs rubbed on his wrists and ankles and they became infested with maggots. As for mealtimes, his food portions were cut in half again. Shiratori’s rations were a measly quarter of what his fellow prisoners ate.
And because of the heavy cuffs he had to eat face down in his soup bowl like a pig. Shiratori was in such dire straits that some guards even felt bad for him. But their job was to stop him escaping, and that’s exactly what they’d done. Or, so they thought.
While on evening patrol on 26th August 1944, two guards heard a shattering crash above them. As they looked up, they saw a darting figure disappear through a broken skylight. Panic set in as they rushed to check which prisoner had escaped. Everyone was accounted for except Shiratori.
When they looked through his cell window they saw his bed was made, his clothes folded on top, and the special handcuffs were lying on the floor. A search party immediately set out to look for him, but after a few fruitless hours, they gave up. Their cruel efforts to contain him had failed, Shiratori was gone again.
Only this time it didn’t take them long to figure out how. The thick metal bolt which held the handcuffs together was horribly corroded. Over years, this’ll happen to most metals. But the bolt showed decades of wear after mere months and it had this weird residue on the surface.
A guard rather bravely tasted it and realized it was salty. That same salty residue was found on the bolts that held the surveillance window of Shiratori’s cell together too.
As previously mentioned, the prison food was mostly rice and salty miso soup. While any other prisoner would gulp down the hot soup to abate the deathly chill, Shiratori thought differently. He’d save a tiny amount of soup every day to drip onto the handcuffs and the bolts on the surveillance window’s frame.
To understand why, we’re gonna have to do a little bit of science. Basically, when water touches metal it creates something called an oxidation reaction, where the metal loses electrons to the oxygen present in water. Which makes the metal corrode and rust.
Salt is an electrolyte, meaning when it’s mixed with water, like in a soup, the resulting solution conducts electrons much quicker than normal water. So, the oxidation reaction happens faster, and the metal corrodes faster too.
In other words, the salty soup was perfect for wearing down the metal bolts and facilitating Shiratori’s escape. But how would he know this? While we can't be sure, he was a fisherman at sea so he is probably acquainted with salt water corroding metal ships.
After months of dripping soup onto the bolts, they finally corroded and came loose. The door bolts went first, but Shiratori left them in so the guards wouldn’t notice. Then about a month before the escape, the large bolt on the cuffs came loose too.
After squeezing out of the shackles and getting loosening his joints he went through the surveillance window, Shiratori scampered up the wall and burst out through the skylight. And that’s not all.
Shiratori had planned to escape the night prior, the 25th, but the patrol guards that night had been kind to him. Had he escaped while they were on duty they’d have got in trouble for it. So, Shiratori held on one day longer, further risking his plan getting foiled, all for the guards.
After the escape, Shiratori went totally off the grid. By now, he’d lost all faith in the justice system, and returning to society would be too great of a risk. So, he spent almost two years living entirely by himself in the mountains. It’s hard to know if he even saw another person during that time.
However, even with all his experience in solitary confinement, living so disconnected took its toll. One evening in 1946, Shiratori traveled down into a nearby town, snuck into the school, and found a newspaper. As he read, it dawned on him how much he’d missed in the years since his last escape. He was shocked to read that two atomic bombs had been dropped on Japanese cities.
Shiratori hadn’t even known Japan had lost the war! Maybe seeing life returning to normal even after such tragedy gave Shiratori hope that his life too could do the same. Whatever it was, he knew he couldn’t continue living in the mountains alone. So, he decided to head towards the nearby city of Sapporo and figure out his next steps.
Regrettably, things didn’t go to plan. Along the way, he stumbled across a vegetable garden. Whether he tried to steal from it or not, we’ll never know, but the owner of the garden mistook Shiratori for a local thief who’d been plundering his fields. He chased Shiratori and attacked him.
As Shiratori tried to defend himself, the gardener suffered a mortal wound and bled out. The commotion alerted local police and Shiratori was quickly arrested again. His pleas of self-defense were useless. His extensive record of murder, thievery, and prison breaks, said otherwise. Shiratori was sent to Sapporo prison and sentenced to death.
Fourth Escape: Sapporo Prison
Sapporo prison tried to play it smart. They acquired his previous escape records and reinforced Shiratori’s cell accordingly. Also, a pair of armed guards kept permanent watch outside.
Every day, Shiratori and his cell were searched for any evidence of an escape. They never found anything. In fact, Shiratori was on his best behavior. He did everything the guards asked. They were so confident he’d never escape that they didn’t even bother handcuffing him! Their only suspicion was he kept looking up like he was scanning for an exit.
Knowing his previous skylight antics, the guards knew better than to take this lightly. So, once a week, when Shiratori was bathing, they’d thoroughly inspect the ceiling. They found nothing. Nevertheless, on April 1st, 1947, Shiratori disappeared for a fourth and final time.
Despite the best efforts of the Sapporo guards, Shiratori had outsmarted them. Those looks he shot up at the ceiling were to draw their eye away from where the action was really happening, right below their feet.
Upon inspecting Shiratori’s empty cell, a guard found one of the wooden floorboards beneath his bed was sawn in half. Beneath that was a small alcove, and stashed inside was a metal hoop that had once been wrapped around the cell toilet. It was fashioned into a saw and lay beside a soup bowl left over from one of Shiratori’s meals.
It turns out, Shiratori had used an old nail to make serrated teeth on the hoop. For months he’d been secretly sawing through the floorboard, squeezing through the gap, and using his trusty old friend, the soup bowl, to gruelingly dig his way to freedom.
He hadn’t even had to remove any cuffs to do so, the guards’ overconfidence had seen to that! Once more, a search team set out and came back empty-handed. It was Shiratori’s final, and perhaps most ingenious, escape.
Yet again, he fled into the mountains and was lost to the world. Over nine months later, on January 19th, 1948, a police officer patrolling Kotoni-Cho, near Sapporo, spotted a strange-looking man carrying a large bindle. Sensing he was up to something shady, the officer asked his name. The man responded “Kimura”.
The officer then asked if he could look inside his bag. Kimura happily obliged. Inside were pots, kettles, and bowls, nothing untoward like the policeman had expected. He was ready to let Kimura go when the man quietly asked “Excuse me, sir? Could you please spare me a cigarette?”
In the post-war years, cigarettes were a lavish expense, but the officer took pity on Kimura and gave him what he asked for. Kimura smoked it for a while before whispering, “Thank you, sir. Honestly, my name is not Kimura, it’s Yoshie Shiratori. I am an escaped convict who fled from Sapporo Prison last year.”
Shiratori’s life had been so devoid of kindness that the simple act of being given a cigarette broke him. He followed the policeman to Sapporo Police station, where he awaited his next trial. Except this time, when he made it to court, something was different.
The judge recognized the garden accident outside Sapporo was self-defense without malicious intent and revoked the death penalty. Furthermore, the judge acknowledged that in spite of years of mistreatment by the prison service, Shiratori had never once tried to harm any of the guards. And it wasn’t like he couldn’t have.
In fact, apart from the original crime in Aomori he’d never actively tried to hurt anyone. The judge gave him a revised sentence of 20 years imprisonment and granted his request to serve his time at Fuchu prison in Tokyo as he wished.
Final Years Of Freedom
Shiratori’s arrival at Fuchu put the guards on edge, but they tried a softer approach towards him. They gave him a job looking after the prison gardens and let him participate in prison sports and athletics. Even though he was well into his forties, he’d outwrestle men half his age with ease.
One afternoon, whilst Shiratori was resting on the prison grounds, the prison warden called out to him. “Hey, Shiratori. That wall is only 6 ½ feet high. Someone with your skills could climb that easily. Why haven’t you?” Shiratori looked at the man, smiled, and said “I’m tired”.
After escaping prison four times in eleven years and spending three years on the run, he’d had enough. It was a young man’s game. He was still strong, but not as strong as he once was. Moreover, he simply lacked the motivation to escape again. Shiratori hadn’t escaped so many times because of the prison itself, it was for his own protection against the violent prison guards.
But at Fuchu, he finally felt safe. The warden smiled back at him and decided then and there to apply for Shiratori’s parole. It still took a whopping ten years to clear, yet eventually on December 21st, 1961, Shiratori left prison for the final time. Not through a skylight or tunnel, but through the front door as a free man.
After his release, he spent his final years in Tokyo working as a laborer. But even for our hoodlum Houdini, there’s one sentence none of us can escape. In 1979, at the age of 71, Shiratori passed away and his ashes were buried in a cemetery overlooking Mount Fuji.
If you were amazed at the incredible jailbreak story of Yoshie Shiratori, you might want to read our article about the escape from Alcatraz. Thanks for reading!