Saturday, 11 April 2015

Boy Science Detective: The Wisdom of a Fool

[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.] 

 Another translation: this is the fourth Boy Science Detective story by KOSAKAI Fuboku. Previously we had:
Most of the stories from the series have had something in them to make them worthwhile. To be honest, this one is one I might have been tempted to leave untranslated. It does not have much of the detective or scientific interest that the other stories had; and its central idea is one of the worst plot elements of the detective story (and probably back around 1600 people were saying, "I don't know, Will, that scene seems a bit clichéd to me"). But since I was already two thirds of the way through the six stories that made the first collection, I thought it was a pity not to translate the whole book.

The story deals with intellectual disability, in a way that did not ring true to me; but that may be because the people I have known were more mildly affected. The question of what language to use comes up here. In general I mostly aim for the most polite expression which still sounds more or less like something someone might have said at the time. But I don't know how successful I was here.

The story was first published in 子供の科学 (kodomo no kagaku, Childrens' Science) from January to March 1926. You can find the original Japanese on Aozora Bunko here. As always I've put the translated story after the break; so click to read on if you're interested.

The Wisdom of a Fool


Fuboku Kosakai


I have not yet mentioned to my readers Toshio Tsukahara’s fondness for fishing. Back when Toshio was studying zoology, he was particularly interested in the dissection and physiology of fish, and at the same time he became very keen on fishing. Lately, when he has a difficult case given to him, he even deliberately takes time out to go fishing, so as to arrange his thoughts. Mostly on these fishing trips he amuses himself for half a day or a whole day, and so rests his brain.

             I hardly need to say that it is on the outskirts of Tokyo that he goes fishing; but he does not have a fixed spot. At different times the places he picks might be eight or twelve kilometres away; wherever it is, it goes without saying, he tells me to come with him. As I too have been fond of fishing since I was a child, I am always very happy to come along.

             One day, the two of us had set off for the district of ** village on the outskirts of Tokyo to catch carp. It was mid October, and the persimmon were finally taking on colour. The day was warm, Indian summer weather. Enjoying the afternoon sun, we carried out fishing rods on our shoulders, passing the time in chatter on this and that as we strode cheerfully along the path.

             As we walked, up ahead of us, a constable, the sword at his flank flashing, came towards us, and with him another man, a gentleman in western dress. As soon as the gentleman saw us, he smiled cheerfully.

             ‘Hey, isn’t that Toshio?’ he said.

             When we looked, we saw it was ‘Uncle P’, in other words Detective Oda of the central police station.

             ‘A piece of luck, meeting you here,’ Oda stopped his walk. ‘The fact is,’ he went on, ‘I was thinking of going on from here to call on you today.’

             He turned to the constable beside him and discussed something with him in a low voice. Then he turned back to Toshio and said, ‘The fact is, there’s been a murder in this village, and when we tried to arrest the man we had set our sights on as the likely culprit, it turned out that he couldn’t be the killer by the looks of it. So we’re a bit stuck. You wouldn’t take this one case for us?’

             Toshio looked as if he had quite forgotten that we had come here to fish. He readily agreed, and Oda and his companion turned round and walked with us, bringing us to the village police station. Oda and the village constable told Toshio the circumstances of the case, as follows.

             In this village there was an idiot by birth called Tomekichi Yamada. Tomekichi was fifteen this year, but his intelligence only came to that of a three year old child. God, however, in return for having been so grudging in the gift of intelligence, had bestowed on part of his five senses a keenness far beyond that of normal people. In other words Tomekichi’s eyes were sharper than a cat’s, his nose was keener than a dog’s. On top of that he had surprising strength. Put simply, he was as strong as an orangutan. He could not understand the words people spoke, and likewise  he could not speak human language. As such, in face and form he was human, but to put it simply his nature was nearer to that of an animal.

             For this reason the people of the village would point to him and call him the ‘human cat. Although the district was not far from Tokyo, the villagers were very superstitious and explained his birth as a curse on his grandfather for killing a cat. In fact he did not catch mice; but if he saw a fish, even if it was in someone’s hand, he would spring straight at them and snatch it away, then chomp it down, raw as it was. If someone happened to go past his house carrying a fish, he would catch its smell and run out, snatch it in a moment and go off. As a result, the villagers determinedly avoided passing his house if they were coming home from fishing. It was worse if he had gone without eating fish for two or three days: even if it was snowing that day, he would leap right into the river, skilfully catch a fish, and wolf it down.

             As long as they were not holding a fish when they approached him, Tomekichi would never harm the villagers; and as he did not really do any mischief, the village if anything looked on his misfortune with sympathy. Having said that there was no-one who was really fond of him. Still to make up for the lack of fondness from the village, he had his mother, who loved him more than anything. His father had died of illness when Tomekichi was seven, and his mother thought of her only child as a staff or a pillar. Tomekichi went through life apparently quite unaware of his mother’s extreme love.

             ‘What’ll happen to Tomekichi when I die? I mustn’t die before he does.’ That had been the constant prayer of his mother Toyo, now forty five years old. The house was quite wealthy. They had no maid or farm hand; but the yearly rice rent that they got from letting the villagers farm their fields was quite enough to support the two of them. So they had a relatively easy time in their little tiled house.

             Then, however, two weeks ago the mother Toyo’s constant prayer was smashed to pieces by her untimely death. That is, one night someone crept into her house, strangled her, and departed.

             The first to notice something unusual was Mr. Ichi, an idler of the village. Ichi had been in Tokyo for a long time; but recently he had come home to the village and was foooling about aimlessly. Nobody knew what he had been doing in Tokyo. By his own account he had been working as a shop assistant in a drapers, but lately he had suffered damage to his respiratory organs, and so had come home to visit and recuperate at the same time. But at first sight his face did not look like he was suffering from pulmonary problems; and if the weather was good he would go out fishing from early in the morning.

             That morning, as he always did, Ichi was passing Tomekichi’s house with his fishing rod on his shoulder, when he was puzzled to see that the storm shutters, which at this time of day were normally open, today only were still shut. He went round to the back and found that the back door was open. He stuck his head through to peer into the gloom inside. At that Tomekichi, who had apparently caught the smell of the fish basket, came rushing out.

             With a strange growling he opened the lid of the fish basked; but, as it was empty, he became disappointed. Ichi, however, thought that there was something strange about Tomekichi and went inside into the darkness. There by the light that came in through the crack in the front storm shutters he saw the mother Toyo. She was half out of her quilt, lying on the floor with a towel wrapped around her neck. When he felt her hands, they were already cold. Horrified he ran off and as a first step reported the emergency to the village police station.

             Without delay this village police station telephoned the main station in B-, to which it was subordinate, and from the station there a detective and a police doctor came running. The result of their investigation was this: Toyo had been strangled around eleven o’clock the previous night; all the drawers on the Japanese dresser in her bedroom had been pulled out and left open; from the disarray of the contents which someone had rummaged through, they decided that the motive for the murder was robbery.

             Toyo’s house was made up of four rooms: Toyo used the zashiki with the Buddhist altar in it as a bedroom; Tomekichi’s bed was laid out in the storage room next to it. Apart from the towel wrapped round her neck, which had been used to strangle her, there were no real clues to the killer. Even looking at the ground near the house, they could find no footprints or other traces, since there had been no rain of late. Again, when later the body was dissected, the only result was to confirm that she had been strangled. It gave no further clues at all.

             Luckily, however, the one clue they had, the towel, belonged to the local ruffian and loner, Shinjiro, according to the villagers’ testimony. Learning this, the police wasted no time in setting to arrest Shinjiro. When they did so, he scented danger and ran off in panic, so that it became more and more clear that he was the culprit. They split up and searched in every direction; but where he had gone remained a complete mystery.

             Then, twelve days after Toyo’s murder, in the morning of the day before yesterday, Shinjiro came shambling back out of hiding. He was an ill faced fellow of around forty. The constable immediately went to arrest him; but he acted surprised and defended himself, saying that he did not know anything. When they showed him the cloth, he said that yes that was his towel, he didn’t know when he’d dropped it. When the constable told him the circumstances, he said that on the evening of the day the crime was committed, he had been visiting his former master in Chiba, who was sick. The sickness was unexpectedly severe, and the family had had him stay over. So yesterday the police had investigated the place he had stayed at. They found that, as he had claimed, on the night of the crime he had not been in the village.

             Well with that the case had entered a maze. The body had been burnt, there was no evidence in Tomekichi’s house, and things already seemed beyond improvement. So finally Detective Oda was sent from the central police station; but when he heard the circumstances, he thought the solution to the case was beyond his powers too. He had just decided to ask Toshio to take the case when he came across the two of us walking.

             Toshio had listened in silence while the constable spoke. At the end, he asked, ‘How is the idiot Tomekichi doing?’

             ‘A cousin of Toyo’s has come to Tomekichi’s house and is looking after him,’ the constable replied.

             Toshio asked a further question, ‘Did you question Tomekichi?’

             The constable looked surprised. Staring at Toshio, he answered, ‘How can we question him when he can’t understand what people say?’

             Toshio smiled smugly, ‘That’s your problem there then,’ he said coolly. ‘If you don’t question Tomekichi, how are you going to solve the case?’

             First Oda, then the rest of us stared in amazement at Toshio.

The Disappearing Evidence

After a while Oda asked, ‘Does that mean you’re going to question the idiot?’

             Toshio laughed mockingly, ‘That’s not it. I’m just saying if the crime was committed in the idiot’s house, he ought to know who did it. More important, I’d just like to see the towel used for the strangling.’

             The cloth used to strangle Toyo, the mother of the idiot Tomekichi Yamada, was deposited in the police station at B-, so Detective Oda and the local constable walked with me and Toshio to show us the way to the station about two kilometres away. As I walked, shouldering our now superfluous fishing gear, I pondered how Toshio would investigate this case.

             A likely suspect Shinjiro, the owner of the towel, had been arrested; but as he had not been in the village at the time of the murder, he could not be the killer. In that case, perhaps someone had picked up his towel and killed Toyo, planning to throw suspicion on him. Or perhaps Toyo had had Shinjiro’s towel and the murderer had just used it. Whichever it was, if Shinjiro was not the killer, then since there was no indication of anyone else they should suspect, it was no wonder that the police were thrown into confusion. After this the only way to get more clues was to examine the towel. Would Toshio in the end manage to find a solid new clue? My heart beat fast with this unspoken speculation as we passed through the gate of the police station at B-.

             Just at that moment a man came running out of the station. From his clothes he did not look like a rustic. He made to pass us, turning his eyes to the ground; but at that moment the constable in our group called out to him, ‘Mr. Ichi, thanks for your help.’

             The man lifted his face. He seemed somehow nervous. Mumbling some answer he headed off, almost as if he was running away.

             ‘That’s Mr. Ichi who first discovered Toyo’s murder,’ the constable told Detective Oda. Oda just nodded, but Toshio stopped and watched the man’s figure until he passed out of sight.

             We went on to meet the station chief in the reception room. Oda introduced Toshio and said we would like to borrow the towel used for the murder. The chief was a fat, red faced, impatient seeming person; but he readily agreed. Pushing a bell he called a constable and said, ‘You there, the towel we want is in the right hand drawer of my desk in the interrogation room. Go get it please.’

             The constable nodded and left; but a little later he returned. ‘Chief, there’s no towel in the drawer,’ he announced.

             ‘What?’ the station chief hurried out, astonished. Less than five minutes later the whole station was in uproar.

             Since the towel, our one piece of physical evidence, had gone missing, the police could only admit a massive blunder. According to the station chief’s account, once they had realised that Shinjiro was not the culprit, they had just now called in the discoverer of the crime, Mr. Ichi, for further questioning. For the purpose of letting him explain things, they had got the towel out and asked various questions. That meant that the towel definitely must have been there fifteen minutes ago. The station chief was in complete turmoil. Perhaps Ichi had stolen it, he said, and sent men out after him to fetch him back. He even had him searched; but in the end they did not find the towel.

            ‘The station chief definitely put the cloth in the right hand drawer,’ Ichi said after the body search was done.

             After sending him away, the chief, just to be sure, searched the desk drawers and other places; but in the end he could not find the towel. In that case perhaps someone from the station staff had stolen it, or else thieves had come in from outside and taken it. But then, if someone had stolen the towel, why had they done such a thing? Could it be a simple prank meant to embarrass the police? Or had it a more serious reason?

             Whatever the answer was, the station chief was unusually embarrassed and downcast at the loss of the towel. Seeing him like this, Toshio apparently felt some sympathy.

             ‘Chief, you mustn’t worry about the loss of the cloth. Its theft actually gives us a clue to the case,’ he said.

             Surprised the station chief stared at Toshio, ‘Wh—, why?’ he asked.

             ‘It’s clear it can only be the killer stole the cloth, isn’t it? That means it’s not a long range criminal, it’s someone from round here.’

             ‘But we still don’t know who that killer is, do we?’

             ‘You’re right. So now let’s work out who it is. Is Shinjiro still in custody? Could you let me have a few words with him?’

             The suspect Shinjiro, as you might expect from his ruffianly reputation, did not exactly look like a model citizen. When he was brought in, Toshio stared fixedly at his face. After a while, he calmly asked, ‘Shinjiro, you’ve been into Toyo’s house a few times before, I imagine?’

             ‘Once or twice, when she gave me field work to do.

             ‘Did you perhaps accidentally leave that towel at her house?’

             ‘No, I haven’t called there in ages and I definitely remember still having that towel last month at the time of the festival.’

             ‘Hmm. That means you haven’t been into Toyo’s house since the festival?’

             Shinjiro nodded.

             ‘At the festival the villagers were all together drinking?’

             ‘Aye. I got really drunk.’

             ‘Was everyone in the village in the same group then?’

             ‘No, the festival teams are divided into five. There’s only twenty houses in our team.’

             ‘In that case there were around twenty people in the group? Everyone knew everyone else?’

             ‘That’s right.’

             ‘Was Toyo’s house in the group?’


             ‘Whose house was the festival held in?’

             ‘Mr. Ichi’s.’

             Toshio sat for a while with folded arms, deep in thought. ‘I guess Mr. Ichi would go call on Toyo now and then?’

             ‘I don’t really know.’

             ‘Thank you, then. You’ve been very helpful.’

             When Shinjiro had gone, Toshio turned to the station chief and said, ‘Chief, isn’t it about time to let Shinjiro go?’

             ‘Of course we meant to send him back today. Does this mean you’ve an idea of who did it?’ the station chief said, looking at the figure of this little detective with curiosity.

             ‘I don’t know yet. First I need to find out everyone who was drinking with Shinjiro at the festival.’

             ‘But that won’t prove anything. You really absolutely have to investigate twenty people, even so?’ the station chief asked back.

             Toshio smiled cheefully. We swallowed nervously as we waited to hear what he would say. But when he spoke he was as lighthearted as ever, ‘It hardly needs saying, we don’t have one piece of physical evidence in this case. The only piece of evidence was stolen just now. So microscope and test tubes aren’t going to be any help. If the towel hadn’t been stolen, I would have extracted and examined the dust; but now, I’m spared the trouble. Anyway the odds are if I’d examined the towel it wouldn’t have given any clues.

             ‘If I thought the towel was likely to give a clue, I’d have turned over every stone to find it out; since that’s not the case, I’ll forget about it. But the fact that the towel was stolen, even more than the towel itself, gives us a valuable clue. As I said earlier, it shows us that the thief is still in the vicinity. It’s two weeks since the crime. If he still hasn’t run away, that means he was quite confident he wouldn’t be suspected. In other words the real killer was thinking that Shinjiro would be arrested. But when he learnt that Shinjiro was in the clear, the towel now became evidence of a different kind. So he managed to steal it and get away. With that he thinks he’s safe again. I don’t think he’ll run off. If he doesn’t, we’ll certainly catch him. The work of a scientific detective isn’t just a matter of examining physical evidence scientifically. Scientific methods for catching a culprit are an important part of the job. So in this case I’m going to try and catch the killer scientifically.’

             None of us could really understand what Toshio was saying.

             ‘What does catching him scientifically involve?’ Detective Oda asked.

             ‘Since it’s clear that, first, the thief came from the district and, second, they were in the group drinking sake with Shinjiro at the festival, we’ll gather them together and pick the culprit out by science.’

             ‘How are you going to pick them out?’

             Toshio gave a sneaky laugh and declared, ‘I’m going to use the idiot Tomekichi’s wisdom —ʼ

Arrested by Science

We were so astonished that all we could do was stare at Toshio.

             Oda finally managed to speak, ‘But Toshio! Tomekichi can’t even speak, you know? He’s fifteen, they say, but he’s only got the intelligence of a three year old.’

             ‘Even so, Uncle P, he may be an idiot, but he’s a human child, not a dog or a cat. Anyway, the next thing is to meet him I think. Please show me the way,’ Toshio said.

             Guided by the village policeman we walked with Oda back the way we had come to Tomekichi’s village. On the way Toshio bought a three inch long carp at the fish shop and wrapped it in several layers of newspaper, so that it could not be smelt at all from outside. He put this in his pocket.

             The autumn day had turned to evening by the time we got to Tomekichi’s house. A woman of about forty greeted us. This was the dead Toyo’s cousin, Yasu. Tomekichi was out at that moment playing somewhere, so Toshio made a quick inspection of the whole house, starting with the room where Toyo had been killed. At this point Tomekichi suddenly came back. He had the pale expressionless face of an idiot, and he seemed a little older than his years. When he saw us, he stood there vacantly, with a supicious expression; but then — with what in mind, I could not tell — he came up onto the tatami. Seeing that, Toshio took the package out of his pocket and holding it in his right hand walked slowly towards him.

             At that, when Toshio and Tomekichi were about twelve feet apart, Tomekichi suddenly twisted his nose this way and that, then with a sudden wild energy he leapt on Toshio. Before we had taken it in, in a flash he had stolen the newspaper package and run off. Toshio just smiled.

             ‘Uncle P, that concludes Tomekichi’s questioning,’ he said.

             ‘Huh? But didn’t he just run off?’ Oda said, astonished.

             ‘I don’t care that he ran off. The questioning just now showed me his intelligence well enough. So my next move is to use it to find the killer out.’

             ‘How are you going to do that?’

             ‘On that point, let’s discuss how we go about that right here.’ With those words, he turned to the village policeman and said, ‘The day after tomorrow in the evening, I plan to have actors from Tokyo put on a play in the house. I also plan to have the twelve villagers who were drinking with Shinjiro at the recent festival in Ichi’s house come and see it. So I’m sorry to trouble you, but can you tell them all to come to this house at around ten? That’s all.’

            Then he called Yasu, ‘Please don’t let Tomekichi eat a single fish before the night of the day after tomorrow. Really, not one.’

             Then, to Oda, ‘I’m asking a lot of you, but on the way back to Tokyo, let’s discuss our plans for the evening of the day after tomorrow.’

             From what Toshio said as we walked, though he had spoken of a play, this would not be a normal stage performance. Two actors were going to reenact Toyo’s murder. In other words he was going to have one of them play Toyo, the other the villain, and they would enact a scene as near as possible to what happened when Toyo was murdered.

             According to Toshio’s theory, since in the moment a person died, their soul travelled to the one they loved most, it was certain that the idiot must have woken when his mother was killed. It followed that he had probably seen the killer’s face. Sadly, though, he could not put that knowledge into words. So if now the scene he had witnessed that night was performed, he would certainly remember the killer and leap onto one of the twenty. If he did that, the man he leapt on would be the killer.

             When we heard this, both Oda and I thought ‘That doesn’t sound like the Toshio I know.’ You see Toshio had before now not believed in the existence of spirits. He always used to say that he would never believe something he couldn’t himself prove by science. So for him to say something like this, there must be some special reason for it. With that thought, Oda did as Toshio wanted and hired two appropriate actors.

             The next day, the two actors came to call on our laboratory. Toshio drew a diagram of Tomekichi’s house and explained where the play was to be performed. Then he gave them exact instructions on costume and the like and on the details of the performance.

             The day finally came around. We, Oda and the two actors had reached Tomekichi’s village by car that evening. Toshio was carrying in a little briefcase something closely wrapped in paper.

             First we went to the village police station, then accompanied by the constable we went on to Tomekichi’s house. It was around eight o’clock. Yasu kindly came out to greet us. Tomekichi, perhaps because he had eaten no fish for two days, was out of spirits and lying down in an inner room. Gradually the villagers started to arrive. It looked like sightseers had come too; but the constable sent them packing.

             By around ten everyone that was expected had arrived. They were all excited, as if they were about to see a pantomime. In particular the discoverer of Toyo’s body, Ichi, had come slightly drunk. From his familiarity with Tokyo he was holding forth to the others on the subject of Tokyo theatres and the like.

             Toshio sat the villagers down in one semicircular row in the room between the earth floored entrance space and the zashiki. Then he had a bed laid in the zashiki, that is in the room where the murder had been committed. Everyone looked quite astonished. The idiot Tomekichi who had been sleeping, apparently excited by the many visitors, was walking up and down there.

             At ten thirty, Toshio turned to the villagers and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. The reason I asked you to come here tonight is this: I wanted your help in catching Toyo’s murderer. It’s exactly the hour when Toyo was killed. So now I want to stage her murder and have Tomekichi see it.

             ‘When I do, since all Toyo’s thoughts were fixed on Tomekichi, I think he is sure to find the killer out. I hardly think the killer can be one of you; but anyway I want to try this once. So please watch quietly.’

             The chatter in the room became perfectly silent. Then Tomekichi sat down with Yasu in the place Toshio indicated for him, in the right hand corner in front of the zashiki. After that Toshio had the actress dressed as Toyo lie down in the bed. In the dim light of the electric lamp the sleeping form seemed to make the villagers almost think that Toyo had come back to life. All of them swallowed and stared. Toshio and I took position behind the line of villagers. Oda and the constable went down to the entrance and kept watch.

             A little later the grandfather clock struck eleven with a melancholy chime. At that moment from the direction of the closet, a villain wearing a black cloth mask and carrying an old towel walked in across the creaking floorboards. He stood for a while in thought at the threshold. Then with a cautious bent kneed tread he approached Toyo’s bedside. Even Tomekichi was staring in that direction with fierce concentration. The villagers had as it were forgotten themselves; their eyes and hearts were fixed on this all too real drama.

             The villain had drawn near the bedside. We saw him move a hand towards the quilt. Then suddenly he had sent it flying. At that moment Toyo calling, ‘Aagh’ tried to run away; but the villain leapt on her and quickly strangled her. Toyo crashed down to the floor, her body half out of the bed.

             At that moment, the idiot Tomekichi for some reason turned round to face the villagers. A moment later he stood up abruptly and before we had fully taken it in he leapt for the neck of Ichi, who was sitting just in front of Toshio. Ichi cried ‘Ack’ and fell over backwards. Tomekichi with a wild fury, as if searching for something, was climbing over and jumping up and down on Ichi’s body.

             ‘Aagh! Stop, stop! Tomekichi, forgive me, it was me that killed your mother!’ Ichi cried out in pain.

             Readers, it was Ichi who had killed Toyo. He was taken from there to the police station. The villagers were so astonished that they could not even speak.

             According to Ichi’s confession, he had been in financial difficulty and had planned his attack on Toyo in advance. At the time of the festival he had picked up Shinjiro’s towel. He had planned it so that after killing Toyo and stealing her money, he could leave the cloth there and so cast suspicion on Shinjiro. That night on the way back to Tokyo Toshio told Oda, ‘It was Ichi who found the murder, Ichi who was drinking with Shinjiro, and it’s clear enough it was Ichi who stole the towel. So having spotted that he was probably the criminal, I put on a little play. While all Ichi’s attention was on the play, at the moment when Toyo was strangled, from behind him I got out the package with the carp that I had in my bag and whipped it out next to his shoulder.

             ‘Tomekichi had not eaten fish for two or three days. So he smelt it straight away and came to get it; but as I had put it back in my bag, he thought Ichi must have it and made such a huge search for it. But Ichi himself thought Tomekichi had remembered who the killer was, and in the end confessed. A scientific detective doesn’t just use microscope and test tubes. Using everything skilfully and scientifically for the investigation is also the business of a scientific detective.’

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