How A Japanese Prisoner Once Used Miso Soup To Escape Jail

In fiction, prisons are commonplace. Along with courtroom dramas and moving oratories spoken by charismatic lawyers, tales of prisons touch on loads of human themes: crime, punishment, justice, redemption, guilt, innocence, so forth. We've got "inescapable" (not quite true) real-life prisons like Alcatraz, fantasy prisons like Azkaban from the "Harry Potter" series, Morgan Freeman-as-narrator prisons like Shawshank, Litchfield Penitentiary from "Orange is the New Black," and countless more. Out of all the motifs running through such stories, one stands out above the rest: the desire to escape.

Folks really do escape from prisons, though. Three people, for instance, escaped from Alcatraz back in 1962. As the FBI website says, these guys used the old "chip a hole in the wall" trick to escape to a utility corridor, then the roof and San Francisco Bay, and planted papier-mâché heads in their cots to throw off the guards. In 2000, the "Texas Seven" used the tried-and-true "call over the guard and bop him on the head" trick pulled straight from a cartoon, as All That's Interesting describes. Meanwhile, back in 1729, a dude named Jack Shepherd did the typical "tie a bunch of bedsheets together and lower yourself to the ground" gag, as Cracked explains.

Out of all the ways to escape prison, however — banal or not — we're doubting very many people have used, well... soup. But for Yoshie Shiratori, his daily round of miso soup was exactly what he needed to rust his handcuffs and pull an escape.

Hard times in hard prisons

We get it, of course. Who wouldn't want to escape from prison? They're terrible places. They were especially terrible during Shōwa Era Japan from 1926 to 1989, which covers a tumultuous period in Japanese history. From World War II imperialism to post-World War II reconstruction, and then taking its place as one of the world's premiere economic powerhouses, Japan really pushed to reform its prison system during the 20th century, as Breaking Asia describes. By the mid-1970s, the annual number of people who escaped from Japanese prisons shrank to single digits.

One guy who definitely helped to stress test prison security and inmate treatment during this time was Yoshie Shiratori. Described as "the man that no prison could hold," Shiratori escaped prison four times from 1936 to 1947. He became a kind of folk hero for the downtrodden, especially given the harsh, oftentimes violent nature of Shōwa prisons, and despite him actually deserving his sentence (murder, robbery, theft, etc.). That being said, Shiratori was one of those folks tangled by a combination of low income, poor decisions, and bad luck, who wound up turning to crime to get by.

He escaped from his first sentence in Aomori prison by picking his lock with a wire — simple. He was caught three days later, accused of stealing supplies from a hospital, and chucked back in prison on a life sentence. Thus began a cycle of escalating escape attempts and stricter incarcerations.

Freedom by way of soup

As Breaking Asia describes, Shiratori's second escape attempt upped the ante by involving a bit of acrobatics. He was transferred from Aomori to Akita prison in a cell with completely sheer walls. There was, however, a vent on the ceiling. Night by night, he jumped up and slowly loosened the hinges on the vent. Once out, he sought shelter with a police officer from his old prison who had showed him a bit of mercy. The officer, however, turned him in.

This time, Shitatori was transferred to the even harsher, more isolated Abashiri prison in Hokkaido, Japan's snowy, northernmost island. There, Shiratori was kept in iron handcuffs removable only by a blacksmith, as Opera News describes. This is where he pulled off his ridiculous "escape by soup" feat by spitting out his daily soup onto his handcuffs and the food slot on his door. Miso soup is quite salty, and little by little, the metal corroded and the hole on his door grew. To squeeze through the hole, Shiratori had to dislocate both of his shoulders.

After escaping, Shiratori murdered a farmer who attacked him after he tried to steal the farmer's tomatoes. This time he escaped by unscrewing bolts in the floor and using a bowl like a shovel. His sentence was later reduced on the grounds of self-defense, and wound up being released on good behavior. He never went back to prison, and passed away from a heart attack in 1971.