Don't Eat the Curry

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DONALD MACINTYRE TokyoThe festival in Sonobe began like countless similar events held across Japan during the sticky days of late summer. On the afternoon of July 25, families from this small suburb outside Wakayama city in central Japan strolled down to the festival site. Volunteers had set up food stalls under white canvas tents where, at 5 p.m. sharp, housewives flicked on propane stoves to heat up three big pots of curry. Takatoshi Taninaka, chairman of the local residents' association, was one of the first to tuck in. But soon he and others started feeling queasy. Many returned home, embarrassed to get sick in front of their neighbors. That may have been a mistake. Unaware that anything was wrong, the housewives kept serving the curry. By the next morning, Taninaka was dead, along with his deputy and two children. Sixty-five others had been rushed to the hospital. Someone, it turned out, had added a deadly ingredient to the curry: arsenic.One of the worst cases of mass poisoning ever recorded in Japan, the Sonobe incident has attracted intense national attention. In the weeks since the festival, new twists have surfaced. Police have discovered arsenic in hair samples from two men hospitalized with undiagnosed symptoms resembling poisoning. The two regularly dined at the home of a Sonobe couple. Another man who was an employee of the couple died in 1985 under mysterious circumstances. Suspicion fell on the couple (who once used arsenic in their termite-extermination business) after press reports named them as beneficiaries of insurance policies taken out on the lives of each of the three men.The case has also raised troubling questions about the ability of police and doctors to respond quickly in such instances. The doctors who treated Taninaka didn't find out what killed him until they saw a police lab report more than a week later. Such incompetence is particularly alarming as Japan struggles to cope with a spate of copycat cases. Just last week, a man in a town of Nagano prefecture died drinking oolong tea from a tin laced with cyanide, and a taxi driver in Nara became ill after downing a drink adulterated with insecticide. Police officials say that, starting next year, they will routinely equip officers with high-tech poison analyzers.That won't do much to calm the anxious residents of Sonobe, a gray, treeless neighborhood that is no stranger to foul play. Locals still talk about the high school girl stabbed to death while delivering newspapers 10 years ago, the taxi driver who was fatally stabbed in 1993 and the 69-year-old woman beaten to death by her brother last year. Nor has anyone forgotten the woman who last year strangled her mother, left her in an irrigation ditch and then used the life insurance payment to pay off debts. All of this happened within a 1-km radius of where we live, says a longtime Sonobe resident, who declined to give her name. It's scary.PAGE 1  |  
 
The whole community seems spooked. Wakayama has taken the unusual step of setting up a counseling center in the prefecture for distraught residents. Neighbor is suspicious of neighbor--ironically, the summer festival was supposed bring residents of this bedroom suburb closer together. The army of journalists that has descended on Sonobe has added to the frayed nerves. The hardest hit, perhaps, are Sonobe's young. Hirotaka Hayashi, one of the youngsters who died at the festival, attended Isao Elementary School, as did nine other children who ate the poisoned food. To help calm things down, the school has cut curry from its lunch menu. But some children are so traumatized that they are afraid to eat anything, even at home, according to Ritsuko Nisawa, the school's headmaster. Their mothers have to repeatedly say it's O.K. before they'll touch a meal, she says.Wakayama prefecture has assigned almost 250 police officers to the case, a tenth of its entire force. National law enforcement authorities have even sent in the National Policy Agency director who investigated the gruesome beheading of an 11-year-old boy in Kobe last year. So far, they have made no arrests and won't even say if there are suspects. Sonobe is awash with rumor, however, and the dozens of journalists staking out the narrow street in front of a former pest-exterminators' house expect the police to move any day now.Whether the couple will be called in for questioning is not clear. Foul play was suspected but never confirmed in the death of the boarder in 1985. The pair collected about $200,000 in insurance money from a policy taken out in his name. A company using the couple's address collected insurance payments each time the two men who used to eat at their home were hospitalized. But the couple declared their innocence in a television interview last week, during which their identity was disguised. Said the husband: My conscience is clear.Even if insurance fraud were involved in the earlier cases, it is not clear why anyone in Sonobe would want to poison so many neighbors at once. The community, meanwhile, wants to see the case settled as soon as possible. People can't lead ordinary lives, says Jiro Hanada, a former chairman of the residents' association. We want to get back to normal. For a community where tragedy seems to strike so often, normal might take some getting used to.  |  PAGE 2