The Incredible Japanese Prison Break

The Incredible Japanese Prison Break

– I’m Kento Bento. This video is made possible by Dashlane. Download Dashlane for free if you never want to forget
another password again at the link in the description. Aomori, Japan, 1936. Prisoner Yoshie Shiratori had had enough. He was forced to confess to
a murder he did not commit. Falsely imprisoned in Aomori Prison, beaten and tortured every
night by prison guards, and now worse, prosecutors
were seeking the death penalty. In his mind, it was time to go. But Aomori Prison wasn’t
the easiest to escape. Regardless, Yoshie Shiratori
had nothing to lose. And so at 5:30 a.m. he made his move. He knew there would be a 15
minute gap in the patrol time, as he had studied the
guards’ routine for months. And when the coast was clear,
he pulled out a metal wire which he had smuggled
in from the bathhouse and started to pick the lock. This was originally the metal support ring that was wrapped around
the bathing buckets inmates use to wash themselves. His hands were stiff from the wintry cold. But after a few minutes of
picking, he had success, and his cell door swung open. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet because there were more
locked doors ahead. He knew he only had a few minutes
left before the guards would return, and so he wasted no time
attempting to pick his way through the remaining security doors. Now fortunately for him he was
able to make it out of the facility. But, the bad news was that he
was only halfway to freedom. You see, he was still well
within the search perimeter, which meant at any moment
the alarm could go off and he’d still be caught. At 5:45 a.m. the guards
returned, peering into his cell. And this is what they saw, Shiratori sound asleep in his futon bed. But of course, what they didn’t realize was that they were
looking at something else, a pile of loose floorboards
underneath his duvet designed to trick them. It wasn’t until the next morning
that they finally discovered the truth, and the alarm was sounded. But by then Shiratori was long gone. Now he had escaped. But if you’ve watched any
of our previous videos, you’ll know that things
aren’t always as they seem. In fact, for Yoshie Shiratori,
aka the Prison Break Magician, this was only the beginning. Three days later he was caught
trying to steal supplies from a hospital. And just like that, he
was back in the slammer. But this time for his escape attempt he was sentenced to life in prison. He would never be with his family
again – his wife and his daughter. And all the months of planning
had led to just three days of freedom, and now it seemed he’d be locked
up for a very long time. Six years later, in 1942, in the
midst of the Second World War, Shiratori found himself transferred
to Akita Prison in Akita City. There the guards treated him
even worse than in Aomori. They had heard about
Shiratori’s previous escape and were determined to
make an example out of him. They wanted to make sure he
would never escape again. Along with the usual beatings,
he was forced to partake in extreme manual labor, made to sleep on the hard concrete floor
in the severe winter cold, and placed into solitary confinement for extended periods of time. Now this was a specially-made
solitary confinement cell which was very small and
had a very high ceiling, with the walls covered with
copper sheets so smooth that it was impossible to grip. In addition, there was almost no sunlight even in the daytime, with
the only window light coming from a small sealed
skylight high above. This was a room designed to
keep escape artists from escaping. And if that wasn’t enough,
the guards also made sure that Shiratori was
handcuffed at all times. Now despite the constant
abuse, one of the guards, Kobayashi, in fact the head
guard, took pity on him. Kobayashi never laid a
finger, and even seemed to check up on him from time to time, concerned for his wellbeing. Perhaps this made life a little
more bearable for Shiratori. And it might have even been
what kept his will alive all the way to the night of June 15th. It was a stormy night, and
Shiratori was in the middle of one of his extended stays
in solitary confinement. At around midnight one of the
guards peered into his cell and couldn’t believe his eyes. He opened the cell door and
looked around in astonishment, as Yoshie Shiratori had
vanished into thin air. All that was left was his handcuffs. So how did he do it? Well, there were a few
assumptions the guards made that did not apply to Shiratori. For one, handcuffs simply
didn’t work on him. Shiratori was actually a master
of getting out of handcuffs. And in fact, had several
methods to choose from. Here he decided to go with the
familiar lock picking method. But he really could have
gone with any of them. He had thoroughly scoured his surroundings to find anything that could
be of use in an escape. And just like in Aomori Prison, he was able to uncover
a loose bit of wire. Perhaps it was from one of the
items Kobayashi brought him. But this wasn’t clear. After freeing himself from the cuffs, he placed his palms and soles
of his feet on the smooth copper sheets and started climbing the unclimbable wall. It turned out Shiratori
was also an expert climber with an uncanny ability
to scale like a lizard. Once he reached the skylight above, he noticed that, yes,
the window was sealed. But the wooden framing around
it was starting to rot. And so thereafter night after night when the guards weren’t looking, he climbed the copper walls and loosened the framing bit by bit. Afterwards he’d climb back down and place the handcuffs back
on as to not rouse suspicion. After a couple of months, the
window finally came loose. And from there it was just
about choosing the right day. He waited until a particular stormy night so the guards wouldn’t hear
the footsteps on the roof. And that was it. He had escaped from prison again. Now this time he wouldn’t be caught. Or at least, not in the way you’d expect. (gentle music) Three months later, on September 18th,
the head guard, Kobayashi was at home when he heard a knock on the door. (door knocking) To his surprise, it was the
fugitive Yoshie Shiratori, unkempt and disheveled,
and he needed a favor. A stunned Kobayashi
took him in and fed him, all the while listening
to what he had to say. Shiratori explained that
he didn’t actually mind being in prison and that the only reason he escaped twice now was
due to the tremendous abuse he suffered at the hands
of the sadistic guards. Kobayashi, however, was the only one who treated him with
any amount of respect. And so he felt he owed it to him
to let him in on his grand plan. Now this plan involved
Shiratori willingly, yes, handing himself over to
the Justice Department where he could then personally make a case for how corrupt and barbaric
the Japanese prison system was, and there needed to be reform. He wanted to campaign for change, and in the process gain his
legal freedom through a civil lawsuit. He felt this was the only way he could realistically
end up with his family. This, of course, was a
super ambitious plan. And as a fugitive on the run,
he was well aware of that. Which is why he needed
Kobayashi, the well-respected head guard of Akita
Prison, to vouch for him to strengthen his credibility. As the only guard who
ever treated him right, he had a feeling Kobayashi
would do the right thing. Minutes later, while
Shiratori was in the toilet, Kobayashi called the police. Maybe not a great plan. Just like that, Shiratori
was back in prison, and this time he vowed never
to trust an officer of the law again. For the second escape, the courthouse added three more years
to his life sentence. Now Shiratori requested to
be sent to a Tokyo prison where the weather was warmer, as he couldn’t stand the
cold in the northern prisons. His previous stints had
weakened him severely, but he was denied his request. Instead the judge sentenced him to the infamous Abashiri
Prison in Hokkaido, the northernmost prison in Japan. No man had ever escaped from
this wintry hellhole of a prison. It was now 1943, and the cold
was unbearable in Abashiri as the temperature in the
cells was below freezing point. Whenever inmates received
their prison food, the miso soup and soy sauce
would often freeze up. In this temperature a handcuffed Shiratori was thrown into an open
cell in summer clothing, and he immediately felt the
paralyzing sting of cold air. Perhaps in a fit of desperation,
he tried to force himself past the guards. But they were able to push
him back and beat him down. An enraged and defiant
Shiratori stood back up and vowed that he would
escape from Abashiri Prison, like he’s always done, and that there was nothing
they could do about it. In fact, he claimed there was
little point even putting handcuffs on him, as he’d always find a way to break free, if not by lock picking, then well, this. He the proceeded to rip apart
the chain of his handcuffs to the horror of the guards. It turned out Shiratori had
another special ability. Aside from his outstanding
climbing abilities, he also possessed incredible
strength, almost superhuman strength. Back in Akita Prison he
could have broken free of the cuffs the physical way if he didn’t have to put them back on. Now this was impressive,
but it wasn’t so smart to lay his cards on the table like that, as the guards were starting to
build an escape profile on him. They knew he had lock picking abilities, lizard-like climbing abilities, and now almost superhuman strength. And so they set out to devise
the ultimate escape-proof cell, one that was sure to be Shiratori proof. And they came up with this. The new cell had steel fixtures
with a low chance of rot. Any openings, even the bars removed,
were made smaller than his body, meaning there was no way he
could physically fit through. He had specially made solid iron
handcuffs that tied his hands behind his back, and leg cuffs that made
him barely able to stand. These cuffs weighed 20 kgs
each and had no keyhole, which meant they could not be lock picked. And the only way they could be
removed was by two metalwork specialists who would come once every
few weeks to remove them in an arduous two hour process. It was at this point, and only this point, that he could even take a bath. And he certainly needed one
as weeks of being shackled up with no movement meant his cuff wounds were infested with maggots. On top of that, and as cold
as it had already been, it wasn’t even peak winter yet. Any strength he would have left would surely be nullified
by the upcoming freeze. Though just in case, they still made sure to cut his already meager
food portions in half. And so that was it. Even for Shiratori, this was too much. As winter came he succumbed to his fate. Every day the guards would slide his meal through the opening and he’d
be forced to grovel like a dog. His hand and leg cuffs
made every action awkward and uncomfortable, with
even sleeping being a pain. There was no doubt life in
Abashiri Prison was absolute torture. Now fast forward. Shiratori was somehow able to survive
through the winter, and spring was coming. This meant he was starting
to get his strength back. But still, what could he really do? He was literally in a bind. Months passed and well,
nothing seemed to happen. Then one night in August,
a guard in his office was doing some paperwork when
he heard some shuffling on the roof. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he decided to check on the prisoners. As he looked inside
Shiratori’s inescapable cell, he was stunned. The futon bed and prison
garments were neatly folded up. The specially made 20 kg handcuffs
and leg cuffs that would have required two specialists two hours to remove was placed on the side. And Shiratori was nowhere to be seen. He had finally fulfilled
his promise to the guards. The alarm immediately sounded, but despite the work of the search party,
it seemed he had truly disappeared. But how on earth did this happen? How did he escape from the
fortress that was Abashiri Prison? Well, preparation had
started six months earlier. At the time he didn’t have
the strength or stamina to mount any sort of escape, not to mention the restraints he was in. The one thing he did have
was time and patience. Every day the guards would
slide his meal through. And while he struggled to
eat his food off the floor, he always made sure to save a little
bit of the miso soup in the corner. You see, every night he
would hobble awkwardly to the inspection window and splash a little of
it on the steel frame. He would also dab some on
his handcuffs and leg cuffs. Now his intention was for the
salt content of the miso soup to oxidize the screws and bolts, eventually corroding and loosening it. After a month, this technique
of rusting through the iron actually worked, and the
first screw came out. The next few months saw screws and bolts coming loose assisted by
the use of the first screw as a sort of screwdriver. By the end of spring, he was able to fully remove his
handcuffs and leg cuffs, as well as the steel frame
of the inspection window. But there was a problem. The size of the opening
was smaller than his body, which meant he couldn’t fit through, a contingency thought out by the guards. What they didn’t account for
though was Shiratori’s fourth ability, which involved being able to
dislocate his joints at will. With this he was now able to slide
through the opening like a caterpillar. This repertoire of skills
thus surely making him an honorary member of the X-Men. With that he climbed
through a broken window in the roof and vanished. Impressively, Shiratori had
now escaped from three prisons, as well as being the only man
to ever escape Abashiri Prison. Now good on him for escaping, but this was northern Hokkaido. And the only direction
he could have gone to was the cold, snowy mountains. Actually, the prison guards felt that they had the last laugh because
if the cold didn’t get him the mountain bears certainly would. Despite this likelihood,
there was one person who stayed hopeful, and
that was Shiratori’s wife. But she was still worried. Because even if he was alive, she knew he wouldn’t be able
to make it back to his family as the authorities would
be constantly on his tail. Which is why she was
desperately and secretly hoping that Japan would lose the war, as that would enable the US
to take over the country, meaning everyone would likely
forget about her husband. Of course, she kept this to herself. But then a year later, in
August 1945, she got her wish. (bombs exploding) The Americans had now
taken over the country’s penitentiary system, and
sweeping changes were being made. (dramatic music) And it did seem perhaps that the manhunt for Yoshie Shiratori had
now taken a back seat. Yet the question remained, where was he, and was he even alive? The answer was yes, he was alive
and living a solitary life, this time self-imposed. It turned out he had
discovered an abandoned mine on a mountainside in
the Hokkaido wilderness and was able to make a home for himself. For food he lived off nuts and berries, wild rabbits and raccoons, and was even able to learn to catch crabs from a stream by observing
the habits of bears. Life was steady and safe. But after a while, curiosity
got the better of him. And so after two years of isolation he made his way down the
mountain to a nearby village. What he saw astounded him. The streets were filled with
signs written in English. (slow music) The posters and flags emblematic of the war effort had vanished. And even more strange,
young Japanese girls were holding hands with American soldiers. What on earth was going on? He grabbed a newspaper
that had been set aside, flipped through the pages,
and it was only then that he found out about the atomic bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan had surrendered the previous
year, and he couldn’t believe it. As with his wife, he felt it
was now pointless to hide. And so bid farewell to his
old hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He headed south of Abashiri
for the next 50 days until he reached the city of Sapporo. At this point he was starving. So he found himself a nice ripe
tomato from a nearby field, which was a huge mistake. (slow dramatic music) A farmer had spotted him and
mistook him for a well-known local thief, which led to a scuffle resulting in the farmer’s abdomen
being pierced by a blade. Sadly he bled out and died. But not before Shiratori
was arrested for the crime. It wasn’t long until police found out that they had in fact had the
infamous Yoshie Shiratori in their custody. For his multiple escapes and
having now murdered the farmer, despite his claims of self-defense he was sentenced to death by
the District Court of Sapporo. And in 1947, he was sent to Sapporo Prison to await execution. Now to ensure he wouldn’t escape this time while on death row, he was
placed under 24 hour surveillance with six armed guards personally
assigned to his watch. As for the cell itself,
it was upgraded further from the one in Abashiri Prison with reinforced doors,
ceilings, bars, windows. In fact, any openings were made smaller than the size of his
head, not just his body, learning from the Abashiri escape. As while he may be able
to dislocate his joints, he certainly can’t dislocate his skull. As long as his head can’t
fit, they were good. The six guards were so confident
in fact that they didn’t even bother cuffing him. Now Shiratori was getting old and the odds of escaping by
this point were looking slim. As his execution loomed
near, there was little he could really do, and
the guards knew that. They could see the
desperation on his face, looking up, searching for an escape
plan that they knew would never come. Though still, just in case, they made
sure to search his room every night while he was taking a
bath in the bathhouse, inspecting the ceiling, skylight, and any other openings. A month passed and winter was
now coming, weakening him further. And the realization was
starting to dawn on him. He grew increasingly
despondent, staying in bed, refusing to wake up despite
the orders of the guards. This went on for a while, until one morning, the guards had
enough and entered the cell to discipline him. They flipped over the
duvet and he was gone. (gentle music) This was not possible. How did he do it this time? Going back to when he was first placed under 24 hour surveillance
with the six armed guards personally assigned to his watch. He had in fact conditioned them to
look up and keep up from the very start, not just because his
previous escape attempts involved climbing through
skylight windows on ceilings, but also his suspicious,
yet as it turned out very intentional, behavior
of constantly looking up to figure out an escape plan. Little did they know, it was all an
act and that he already had one. But it would be taking place
precisely where they weren’t looking. You see, it turned out the authorities
were so concerned with him escaping through a window or skylight that they neglected to
reinforce the bottom. This ironically ended up being his easiest and simplest escape
because all he had to do was remove the bolted floorboards, which wasn’t easy but he had experience, and using random cutlery
and a miso soup bowl, dig his way to freedom. This took over a month. And he was able to hide his activities due to A, the guards not
suspecting this approach, and B, the floorboard panels
being put back in place every night after digging. The six guards thought they were
keeping a good eye on him even at night. But with the hole consistently
positioned underneath the futon and duvet and it increasingly becoming the norm to refuse the orders of
the guards to wake up, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Placing a pile of loose floorboards
underneath the duvet to trick them was also a callback to his
first prison escape in Aomori. So he had now escaped
from prison four times. And by this point the story
is starting to get ridiculous. But this perpetual cycle
of capture and escape, capture and escape, was about to end. Because a year later, in
1948, Shiratori was exhausted. He was in his 40s now. And this was a young man’s game. One day in the Kotoni
neighborhood, still in Sapporo, as he stopped to rest, a
policeman just happened to sit by his side for a smoke. He didn’t who Shiratori was, but
he struck up a conversation with him. Shiratori, of course,
was wary of his presence and tried to play it cool, all the while attempting to figure out
a way to remove himself from the situation
without being suspicious. Suddenly the policeman
did something unexpected, at least to him. He pulled out another cigarette
and offered it to him. Shiratori was stunned. You see, cigarettes were
expensive luxury items in Japan at the time. And the fact that
someone offered it to him just out of the kindness of his heart brought tears to his eyes. Not to mention all his
life he had been abused and mistreated by officers of the law, with even the head guard,
Kobayashi, turning his back on him. And here was an instance of an
officer treating him kindly with respect, and with no prejudgment. As he smoked the cigarette,
Shiratori couldn’t help but tell the officer his
full name, Yoshie Shiratori, and that he had escaped from
Sapporo Prison last year. In fact, he had escaped from
prison four times in his life. It was strangely a relief
to get it all off his chest, and he was even ready
for the consequences. After the Kobayashi incident he had vowed never to trust another
officer of the law again. But the simple act of
receiving a cigarette from a stranger broke him. Of course, he was arrested again,
but this time things were different. Maybe it was the fact that
he willingly gave himself up, or that Japan’s justice system
was going through a change. But the High Court of Sapporo
became sympathetic to Shiratori’s plight. And some of his past
claims were recognized, such as acknowledging the farmer’s
death as a legitimate case of self defense. They also made note
that throughout all four of his prison escapes he didn’t
kill or injure a single guard, despite the abuse he may
have suffered at the ends. At the end of the deliberation, the High Court dismissed
the murder charge, revoking his death sentence, and instead sentenced him
to just 20 years in prison. Further, they approved his
request to be transferred to a Tokyo prison where
the weather was warmer. He was getting what he wanted. In Tokyo he was sent
to Fuchu Prison where, for the first time, the guards
actually treated him well. It was a weird feeling. There were all these precautions
and security measures in place to ensure that the infamous Prison Break
Magician wouldn’t escape. But the truth was Shiratori
didn’t really care anymore. Everything he’d been fighting against, the mistreatment from
guards, the death penalty, even the northern climate,
was no longer of concern. And he was at peace. There was no need to escape anymore. He finally accepted his punishment. And for the remainder of his
sentence acted as a model prisoner. Just 14 years later, in 1961,
he was released on parole. And for the first time in a long time he was truly a free man. He decided to head back to
Aomori where it all began and meet up with his daughter, who by this point unfortunately
was the only family member he had left. For his incredible
escapes, Yoshie Shiratori became a legend, an antihero in Japan. But it was very much the opposite
for the country’s penitentiary system, which had somehow allowed him
to escape time and time again. This was a national
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