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Veteran Investigator Kunio Tojima on Solving Crimes Through Fingerprints, Footprints



[Photo: collecting fingerprints with young officers at the scene of a disaster]



(Second of Five Parts)


Part 1: Interview with Kunio Tojima, Japanese Investigator Who Trains Thai Police





It is not every day that a veteran Tokyo police investigator becomes a police colonel in the Royal Thai police and thus serves as an important link in Japanese and Thai police cooperation. It took a little digging to understand how this turn of events came about.


Kunio Tojima was born on January 1, 1941, in Yamaguchi Prefecture. In 1960, he joined the Japan Self-Defense Forces and entered the Narashino 1st Airborne Brigade (24th term). While there, he became interested in police investigative work and, in 1963, after finishing his term with the brigade, he entered the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department (TMPD).


He quickly gravitated to criminal investigations, and specifically the criminal identification section, where his superiors used his skills in a number of well-known cases.


He was put in charge of the Yukio Mishima “hara-kiri” ritual suicide incident in 1970, and later assigned him to the Aum Shinrikyo-related incidents. The excellence of his work was recognized by his superiors—he was, in fact, conferred the TMPD Superintendent’s General Award and Director’s Award a total of 107 times. In 1994, he was designated the “Tokyo Citizens’ Police Officer.”


It was not until November 1995 that Tojima was sent to the Scientific Criminal Investigations department of the Royal Thai Police as a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) instructor. His two-year term there was extended for a year at the request of the Thai organization. In 1998, he returned to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and resumed his usual work.


A few years later, however, in 2002, he received another request from Thailand and was sent again to Bangkok as a JICA senior volunteer, teaching Thai investigators modern techniques.



Why did you go to Thailand again? And why do you still stay in Thailand when you enjoyed such a successful career at the TMPD?


Three years after returning to my old workplace at the Criminal Investigations Section of the TMPD, I reached the age of mandatory retirement. I had been recognized as the “Number 1 forensic sketch artist” by the TMPD, so I was appointed to work for an additional five years as an instructor of facial sketching of wanted persons.


Then, a few days after receiving the appointment, I received a request from the Thai Royal Police to return to Bangkok to provide more training. When I discussed this situation with my boss, I was scolded, “You’ve just been given a post as a sketch artist instructor. What kind of person would just up and quit?”


It’s in my nature to challenge what I’m told not to do. So, I went to speak directly with a higher-ranking officer in the TMPD that I’d worked with when I was the chief of the Criminal Investigations section. He said forgivingly, “Others can do the sketch artist job. It’s your life. If you want to go—go ahead!” Then he proceeded to call my boss for me on the spot.


With this word from the top, I returned to the criminal investigations room and exclaimed to my astonished co-workers, “I’m going to Thailand again!”


Collecting fingerprints with young officers at disaster scenes seems to have been an important part of your criminal identifications training in Thailand. What exactly does this include and what happened to bring it about?


Yes. Fingerprints are important, but not the only important crime scene technique. When I returned to Bangkok in 2002, all the officers in the top posts of the Thai police were my former students. My only condition for taking the job was that I get to go to crime scenes freely.


An interesting case came up in 2006, when a body was found in an empty lot in the suburbs of Bangkok. I took the fingerprints and identified the victim as a Japanese national. A special team of the Crime Suppression division of the Thai police worked on the investigation for over a month, even launching a raid. The raid went on for 11 hours, but the 80 million yen in evidence we expected to find didn’t surface.


The investigators were worn out and I’d half given up. I’d been idly flashing my search light around the polished floors of the room. It was a powerful type that had been given to me by Akira Mitsuzane, the former section chief of the Criminal Investigations section in Tokyo. I came across a dark blood stain the size of a large grain of rice in the crack between the tiles, which led to a confession from the suspect. I immediately called Mitsuzane, who at the time was the head of Crime Squad 1 in Tokyo.


Mitsuzane is now working to promote identification activities with footprints, which are more easily left behind than fingerprints. The Thai crime scene investigators and I are helping him out. So you see, it is not just fingerprints.



I understand you also dealt with the outcome of mass casualties while stationed in Thailand. Were you there on December 26, 2004, when the tsunami that followed the huge Indian Ocean earthquake in Southern Thailand caused numerous casualties, including 28 Japanese, and the death or disappearance of over 220,000 people?


Yes, I was in Bangkok then. It was a devastating event.


The day after the tsunami, the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok were requested to assist with identification of the victims. It was the end of the year and no one wanted to go, but I headed out with 10 young subordinates for an 18-hour drive to Phang Nga province, which faces the Andaman Sea. My young colleagues were all understudies, and this was the first time they’d ever taken fingerprints.


We originally planned it as a three-day trip, but of course that was unrealistic with so many casualties. It’s difficult to get fingerprints from rigid bodies, so I made the decision to cut off fingers and remove the skin, then take the prints by wrapping the skin around our own fingers. We spent three months identifying 4,000 bodies and returning them to their surviving families. Thai citizens, upon turning 15 years of age are required to carry identification cards and have their prints taken, so in the end we were able to identify the victims.


Among the victims was a Japanese primary school student. We were able to identify the body from fingerprints left on molding clay that the child had used at school, sent to us by the grandparents in Japan.


Did you find there was support for your work in Japan?


Oh, yes. For example, not long after our work on the tsunami victim identification finished, I was in Japan and was given the opportunity to visit the Fukiage Palace located in the Imperial Palace with Sadako Ogata, who was the President of JICA at the time. I explained the state of damage from the tsunami to the Emperor and Empress and received an appreciative, “Please take care” from them.


(To be continued)



Hideki Yoshimura is the Sankei Shimbun’s Singapore Bureau Chief. The interview for this article took place at Bangkok in December 4 and 5. Click here to read the original article in Japanese.


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