On June 4, 2001, 52-year-old Junko Yamagami was scheduled to take a business trip to Dalian, China for the travel company she worked for. Before leaving, she was also supposed to attend a meeting. By noon, after Junko hadn’t shown up to her office or gotten on board her plane, her colleagues began to get worried. They checked her house, where she lived with her husband Masahiro and mother-in-law Saegusa, but nobody appeared to be home. The family dog and Masahiro’s car were gone too.
The Yamagamis’ daughter, a 26-year-old elementary school teacher named Chie, was also missing. She lived alone in an apartment in near-by Takehara city, but came over to visit her parents the night before. Chie was the last member of the family anybody had seen. At 9:30 PM, she picked up some make-up from a colleague and then headed for her parents’ home in the small mountain town of Sera. The Yamagamis’ neighbors heard a car door close at 10:50 PM. Either this had come from Chie after coming home, or it was the sound of the Yamagamis leaving. None of the neighbors were sure. Whatever it was, the family’s newspaper deliveryman reported that the car was missing when he came around 4:00-5:00 AM.
The Yamagamis’ front door was locked, but the back door was open. Nothing in the house appeared to be disturbed. The kitchen light was left on, all of the beds were made, and breakfast had been prepared. As ordinary as the scene appeared, however, there were a couple of strange details. The Yamagamis’ pajamas were missing, and while their shoes had been left behind, their sandals were gone. Junko’s luggage and the 150,000 yen she needed for her trip were also inside the house, and so was Masahiro’s pager. It seemed that the Yamagamis suddenly dropped whatever they were doing, took the family dog, and quietly left the house in their pajamas and sandals.
A year into the investigation, the case seemed to be going nowhere. The Yamagamis had good reputations, and weren’t involved with any particularly shady or dangerous people. Masahiro did have some money problems, but it wasn’t serious enough to leave town. To some of their neighbors, the Yamagamis’ strange disappearance reminded them of an old story from Edo times. A female servant was said to have gone into the mountains one day and then disappeared. All the townpeople tried looking for her, but she was never found.
On September 7, 2002, police recovered a car that was found submerged in a reservoir. The car contained the bodies of the four Yamagamis and their dog. No cause of death could be determined, but there were also no signs of anybody being attacked or bruised. Because Masahiro was in the driver’s seat, police believed that it was a murder-suicide or group suicide.
Now the suicide theory does seem credible; after all, why else would they have taken their dog? But the apparent suddenness of how the Yamagamis left strikes me as suspicious. If Masahiro really did kill everybody, how did he manage (or threaten) to convince the other family members to get in the car? Especially when they were getting ready to eat breakfast? Or did somebody force them to leave? Might they have been trying to get away from somebody, and Masahiro accidentally drove into the water?
This case just makes my head spin. It’s a shame that there isn’t much information online about it. According to a poster on this message board, citing a Chinese newspaper, the Yamagamis’ car was found in a neutral state. Masahiro’s window was down, and everybody was wearing their seat-belt. The Yamagamis’ clothes were so damaged that the authorities couldn’t determine whether they were wearing pajamas. Some glasses and an umbrella were also found. Other users brought up a local rumor that Junko was having an affair, arguing that it really was a suicide of some sort.
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