"There must have been poison in the miso," the master thought, and questioned the kitchen help, in particular the maids, but found nothing to implicate one more than another. Then he decided to call in specialists to solve the matter.

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The Case of the Poisoned Miso Soup:
Gowns Through Which Evil Deeds Show

From Tales of Japanese Justice (Honcho Oin Hiji) by Inaha Saikaku (1641-1693), translated by T. Kondo and A. Marks.

This tale comes from a compendium of wry twists on 17th century trial accounts, where gozen, "His Lordship," examines evidence and metes justice under the Kyoto Shoshida. The gozen in these stories are likely former Zen priest and minister Itakura Katsushige (1601-1619) and his son Shigemune, both regional officials of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Long ago in the towns of the Capital, if a man of light purse had an attractive daughter, he brought her up in the finest possible style, and, when her charms blossomed, would send her to a daimyo [provincial lord] to serve as a lady-in-waiting, or to a high-ranking noble to serve him.

A certain needle-ship owner of Anega Koji had a daughter of unrivaled beauty. She was sent to serve a great man, to whom she meant more than the moon or the flowers. She was named "Nightingale" by her master, to whom even the New Year's dawn now paled in significance. Deaf to the criticism of society, he ordered that she be addressed as "Milady." A woman without a name, after all, is just something to ride. After that, it became difficult to catch so much as a glimpse of her.

One day, after the dishes for dinner had been set and the maids had noisily left the halls, the lady ate her supper more cheerfully than usual. Shortly afterward, however, she began to suffer sharp chest pains. The color of her eyes faded; her entire body turned purple. Her hands and feet shriveled, her breathing became fainter; she was so ill that she was not able to drink so much as a drop of water. The life of a mortal is frail as the dew; her body withered like a morning glory. "Oh no!" everyone cried in grief.

The maids were distraught and described everything to the physician. He said, "It must have been the combination of the dishes. What did she have for dinner?" She was given medicine to relieve her but to no avail. She suffered for four hours longer and then left this floating world. The master's grief was not small.

After the corpse was taken care of, the physician examined the food. There had been the usual boiled rice. The soup was boiled perch. With the marinated catfish, there was the salmon roe. The fried dish was sea bream salted overnight. With the kneaded bean paste were fish cake rings. There were also ukogi broth and fragrant toza pickles. There were no dishes that in combination would be fatal. As he went over various of the suspect foods, the physician noticed that the miso had a light greenish tinge. Some was given to the household cat, which a few minutes later appeared to go mad and then fell dead with all four paws curled up.

"There must have been poison in the miso," the master thought, and questioned the kitchen help, in particular the maids, but found nothing to implicate one more than another. Then he decided to call in specialists to solve the matter.

The welfare of the maids was important. They could not be treated harshly. It was of particular importance that the guiltless not be made to suffer. "Here is a plan," said the chief investigator, that will cause no more pain than necessary to expose the guilty party."

Immediately, long-sleeved silk kimonos were made for all the sixteen maids. They all put them on and then were housed in the same room. "The guilty person is among you; tomorrow, everyone of you will be tortured," they were told. The lights were turned out and the room was locked from the outside.

It was a summer night, alive with the sound of mosquitos coming through the bamboo shutters. The maids suffered terribly as their bodies were stung; none had so much as a fan to keep the insects off. They wept in anguish. Some bewailed it as fate. Some changed, "Nammyo-horenge kyo" or other passages from the Kannon sutra. Some talked about their homes and wept. Others sang songs as if nothing had happened. Others made believe they were monsters and went about frightening people. Others indeed bore it all with fortitude. Surely there is nothing so varied as the heart of man.

Night soon turned into morning and the interrogating officers returned. First, Yanagi, the head of the maids, was questioned. Then the others were called, according to age. Amid all the swoons and the sleep-tangled hair was one maid whose long-sleeved kimono showed not a wrinkle.

"She is the one," an officer said, and had her seized. She was severely interrogated and, with all the shallowness of a woman's heart, confessed. She had acted on the behest of one of the master's earlier mistresses who had been moved by some unknown impulse. The details of the murder were set forth and the guilty parties graciously met their ends.

Afterward, His Lordship inquired how the woman's crime was discovered, and he was told: "Those who were innocent were able to sleep in relative ease, and their kimonos naturally became untidy. The guilty maid was so concerned about herself throughout the night that she could not rest. Since she did not lie down at all, her kimono was by far the least wrinkled. That was the clue by which her guilt was determined."