TOKYO (TR) – Within the media, she was known as “The Woman of Seven Faces” — but it was a finger that led to the apprehension of murder suspect Kazuko Fukuda after nearly 15 years on the run.
In 1997, police in Fukui Prefecture working off a tip started questioning a woman at a restaurant. Later confirmed as being Fukuda through a fingerprint removed from a beer bottle, she was taken into custody on July 29.
It was in the nick of time: Fukuda was indicted on August 18, just 11 hours before the expiration of the statute of limitations.
At the end of this month, Japan will mark the end of the Heisei Era (1989-2019). As past news reports reveal, one of the more compelling stories from that period is that of Fukuda, a woman who used aliases and underwent several plastic surgeries in evading capture.
In 1982, Fukuda was 34 years old. Married with four children, she worked as a hostess at a cabaret in Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture. As prosecutors would later prove, she fatally strangled rival hostess Atsuko Yasuoka, 31, in the victim’s residence on August 19.
After the crime, she took cash and more than 300 items (including furniture and a bankbook) worth a total of around 9.5 million yen. Police later said that the motive for the crime was the repayment of debt to consumer finance companies.
Fukuda spent the next 14 years and 11 months on the run, during which time she went to great effort to remain out of custody.
At first, her husband asked that she surrender, but she declined. Instead, she had him assist in the burying of Yasuoka’s body in the mountains in Matsuyama. She then remained in the city, where she maintained a boyfriend in addition to her spouse.
However, once investigators started closing in, Fukuda fled with the money (about 600,000 yen in cash) that she obtained from the victim’s residence. Meanwhile, her husband was arrested for abandoning a corpse.
Fukuda initially found it difficult to find work as a hostess due to her relatively advanced age. However, she eventually landed a job at a “snack” club in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture — a distance of about 620 kilometers from Matsuyama. Two days later, she underwent plastic surgery to change the appearance of her nose and eyes at a hospital in Tokyo. She would go on to have several more, which led to her “Seven Faces” nickname in the media.
She moved from place to place, always working to stay one step ahead of the police. While employed at the club in Kanazawa around September, 1985, she began living with a male customer who owned a long-running confectionery shop.
After Fukuda started working at the shop herself, sales hit robust levels. Feeling brash, she brought one of her sons, 18-year-old Toshiyuki, with whom she had been reunited, to Kanazawa in around 1986 to work along side her.
Legendary baseball player Hideki Matsui, a native of Ishikawa, was a customer of the shop while an elementary school student. “She was a lovely-looking lady,” Matsui said during an interview after her eventual arrest in 1997.
After the confectioner proposed marriage, Fukuda did not accept immediately, fearing that her past would be revealed. By this time, Fukuda had been placed on a nationwide wanted list, with her image appearing in wanted posters. After viewing one such poster, a relative of the confectioner raised their suspicions with the police.
The tip caused Fukuda to flee on February 12, 1988 by bicycle for Nagoya — a distance of around 235 kilometers — where she became a staff member at a love hotel. After a colleague, saw a wanted poster at the Midori Police Station, they suggested that she give herself up.
Instead, Fukuda sought employment at another love hotel in the city. However, the employment agreement required a thumb print and photograph. It was May 13, 1988 that she left Nagoya for Fukui City.
In Fukui, she once again sought employment as a hostess. But she wound up at a brothel in Osaka City four years later, a job she quit not long after starting.
It was around this time that the Matsuyama-Higashi Police Station, which was handling the case, started to get nervous about the expiration of the statute of limitations, which extended for 15 years.
When there was one year remaining, police offered a reward of 1 million yen for information that led to her capture — a then unprecedented move. (The Jujin Hospital in Tokyo, where Fukuda received at least one of her operations, also offered a reward, since, as director Fumihiko Umezawa told the Washington Post, “Anyone who did a bad thing should have to pay for it.”) As well, a pre-paid telephone card with her image was issued.
Matsuyama Prison Incident
The early life of Fukuda, born in Matsuyama in 1948, foreshadowed what followed. At an early age, her parents divorced. Her mother, who subsequently took custody of Fukuda, then managed a prostitution ring from their residence in Shikokuchuo City, Ehime.
At the age of 18, Fukuda and her live-in boyfriend robbed the house of the head of the Takamatsu Regional Taxation Bureau in 1966. After being convicted, she served a term at Matsuyama Prison.
Fukuda’s incarceration coincided with the Matsuyama Prison Incident. Between 1964 and 1966, yakuza gangsters regularly obtained access to the cells through the cooperation of management, creating an area of lawlessness for them to operate as they pleased. In between drinking, smoking and gambling (with colorful hanafuda cards), the gangsters raped the female inmates.
After the matter was raised by the House of Councillors, two assistant jailers at the prison committed suicide in June and July, 1966.
One of the victims was Fukuda, whose autobiography “Valley of Tears: 14 years, 11 months and 10 days on the Run” brought the severity of the matter to the public’s attention upon its publication in 1999.
Upon leaving prison, Fukuda married, then at the age of 20. But she divorced her husband five years later. After remarrying the following year, she began accumulating the aforementioned debt.
As the Fukui Shimbun tells it, the turning point in the case took place on July 24, when a 59-year-old male customer at the oden hot pot restaurant in Fukui City tipped off police. “A woman who regularly visits a restaurant in Fukui City resembles fugitive Kazuko Fukuda,” he reportedly said.
At the time, Fukuda was using the alias “Yukiko Nakamura.” At around 2:00 p.m. on July 29, police took her in for voluntary questioning after she visited the restaurant again.
During the session, Fukuda, who kept drinking alcohol, declined to have her fingerprints taken. However, police used a beer bottle to obtain one such print, which proved to be a match for Fukuda. Her arrest, at approximately 6:40 p.m., took place without incident, with her eventually admitting to the allegations.
Chronicles of Fukuda’s life have described her as a gambler, drinker and spender on clothes, the latter of which might have been derived by what she was wearing at the time of her arrest: an orange jacket, tight white skirt, a gold and silver double necklace and a white bandanna wrapped around her reddish-brown hair.
The front page of the July 29, 1997 issue of Ehime Shimbun newspaper read in big type “Suspect Kazuko Fukuda Arrested.”
It wasn’t until the following morning that the Fukui Police Station transferred her by train to the Matsuyama-Higashi Police Station. That period allowed the media to swoop in.
As detectives escorted Fukuda, reporters and cameramen surrounded them. At one point, she let out a scream from beneath a jacket covering her face.
In May, 1999, the Takamatsu District Court handed Fukuda a life-in-prison term. That ruling was upheld by the Takamatsu High Court the following year. During the first trial, the curt ruled that the crime was not premeditated but acknowledged an intent on the part of Fukuda to rob Yasuoka.
In the appeal, the defense sought leniency, arguing that Fukuda killed Yasuoka out of passion brought on by a lesbian attraction. But presiding Judge Toshio Shima rejected the argument. “The defendant’s statement is unnatural and cannot be believed without substantiating evidence,” the judge said, according to Kyodo News.
Fukuda’s story captivated the public. An estimated 1,900 people waited in line to sit in the gallery at the Matsuyama District Court at the beginning of her first trial. But the interest faded: Only 50 people arrived for the announcement of the denial of her appeal three years.
The Supreme Court rejected a subsequent appeal in 2003.
Fukuda lived until the age of 57. At the Wakayama Prison in Wakayama City in February, 2005, she collapsed while working at a factory. She was sent to a hospital with a subarachnoid hemorrhage. After never regaining consciousness, she died on March 10.
In 2010, Japan’s Diet revised the Criminal Procedure Law to abolish the statute of limitations for murder.
The saga lives on. Last August, Fuji TV broadcast a dramatized version of Fukuda’s story. In 2011, an hour-long segment on her was also included in “Sekai no Kowai Onnatachi” (“Scary Women of the World”), which was broadcast by TBS.