Foiled gem robbery in Japan sparks demand by luxury stores for ancient ‘sasumata’ weapon

A Japanese weapon that dates back to the 1300s is being snapped up by the owners of high-end jewellery shops and fashion boutiques to fend off robbers, after a video emerged of a “sasumata” being put to its intended use on Sunday.

The viral footage, taken by a passer-by and broadcast by TV Asahi, starts with the sound of breaking glass and a woman’s screams at around 6.45pm on Sunday.

Two of the men wearing crash helmets in the video had reportedly entered a jewellery shop in Tokyo’s Ueno district and started smashing the glass display counters with what appeared to be metal bars.

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In the video, the two men are seen suddenly emerging from the shop, bumping into a third member of the gang, while being pursued by an employee of the shop wielding a modern-day version of a sasumata, which means “spear fork”. Traditionally consisting of a metal semicircle attached to the end of a long pole, the non-lethal weapon was linked to the samurai class and in more recent history was used by police to pin down suspects by their limbs or even necks.

The clip shows the three robbers evading the attacks from the employee, who then turns his attention to the criminals’ getaway vehicle, a moped, striking it and toppling it over.

Deprived of their escape method, the three men flee down a side street, pursued by the shop worker. TV Asahi reported that the criminals were not able to steal anything from the store and no one was injured in the melee.

The company that makes the modern-day version of the weapon seen in the video says it has been busy fielding calls from potential customers after the clip of the foiled robbery went viral.

A police officer in Tokyo. There has been a reported increase in the number of smash-and-grab robberies targeting luxury goods stores across Tokyo in the last year. Photo: Shutterstock

Their 21st-century take on the sasumata is called the Catch-Master Pro Cerberus, named after the guardian deity at the gates of hell in Greek mythology. And it improves on the original’s design by incorporating a flexible, spring-loaded belt that automatically wraps tightly around its target to incapacitate them.

The patented tool was recognised with an award from the National Police Agency in 2011, according to Sano Kiko Co, the Utsunomiya-based company that manufactures it.

An official at the company told This Week in Asia that the sales team was receiving as many as 15 inquiries about the Cerberus a day, double the number than before the failed Ueno heist went viral on social media and television news.

Their modern-day sasumata costs nearly 200,000 yen (US$1,360) the official said, and sales are expected to grow in tandem with the soaring interest in the product.

The company’s website describes the Cerberus as “a special push-and-catch baton that can strike a deadly blow and deprive a trespasser of his freedom with one blow”.

The company emphasises that its sasumata weighs less than 1kg, “making it manageable even in sudden situations by women”. It adds that it is ideal “for the prevention of crime in commercial establishments and educational institutions”.

A woman walks past a clothing store in Tokyo. The firm that makes the modern-day sasumata says it is ideal “for the prevention of crime in commercial establishments and educational institutions”. Photo: AFP

The SoraNews 24 website reported that there has been an alarming increase in the number of smash-and-grab robberies targeting luxury goods stores across Tokyo in the last year. The Ueno district, where Sunday’s incident happened, has a number of high-end watch and jewellery stores and has been the target of nearly half-a-dozen similar attacks already this year.

The store employee who chased off the would-be robbers said the company had bought the sasumata last year after seeing reports of similar smash-and-grab raids over the past year in different parts of Tokyo.

The worker, who has not been named, added that his suspicions had been aroused a day earlier when he saw two motorbikes slowly driving past the store at about the same time of the evening, apparently a reconnaissance trip ahead of the failed raid.

National broadcaster NHK reported on Tuesday that two 18-year-olds had turned themselves in to police in connection with the attack and have since been charged with robbery and assault. Police are still looking for the third person involved in the incident.

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