Ōoka Tadasuke (1677-1752) was a famous Japanese samurai who also served as a magistrate of Tokyo during the Tokugawa shogunate.
Ōoka was highly respected as an incorruptible judge and for his unusual ways in making legal decisions. He never refused to hear a complaint, even if it seemed strange or unreasonable.
People sometimes came to his court with the most unusual cases, but Ōoka always agreed to listen. One of the most unusual cases that Ōoka had heard and solved was known as "The Case of the Stolen Smell". In this case, a paranoid shopkeeper accused a poor student of literally stealing the smell of his cooking.
It all began when a poor student rented a room over a tempura shop - a shop where fried food could be bought. The student was a most likeable young man, but the shopkeeper was a miser who suspected everyone of trying to get the better of him. One day he heard the student talking with one of his friends.
"It is sad to be so poor that one can only afford to eat plain rice," the friend complained.
"Oh," said the student, "I have found a very satisfactory answer to the problem. I eat my rice each day while the shopkeeper downstairs fries his fish. The smell comes up, and my humble rice seems to have much more flavor. It is really the smell, you know, that makes things taste so good."
The shopkeeper was furious. To think that someone was enjoying the smell of his fish for nothing! "Thief!" he shouted, "I demand that you pay me for the smells you have stolen."
"A smell is a smell," the young man replied. "Anyone can smell what he wants to. I will pay you nothing!"
Scarlet with rage, the shopkeeper rushed to Ōoka's court and charged the student with theft.
Of course, everyone laughed at him, for how could anyone steal a smell? Ōoka would surely send the man about his business. But to everyone's astonishment, the judge agreed to hear the case.
"Every man is entitled to his hour in court," he explained. "If this man feels strongly enough about his smell to make a complaint, it is only right that I, as city magistrate, should hear the case." He frowned at the amused spectators.
Gravely, Ōoka sat on the dais and heard the evidence. Then he delivered his verdict.
"The student is obviously guilty," he said severely. "Taking another person's property is theft, and I cannot see that a smell is different from any other property."
The shopkeeper was delighted, but the student was horrified. He was very poor, and he owed the shopkeeper for three month's smelling. He would surely be thrown into prison.
"How much money have you?" Ōoka asked him.
"Only five mon [silver coins], Honorable Honor," the boy replied. "I need that to pay my rent, or I will be thrown out into the street."
"Let me see the money," said the judge.
The young man held out his hand. Ōoka nodded and told him to drop the coins from one hand to the other.
The judge listened to the pleasant clink of the money and said to the shopkeeper, "You have now been paid. If you have any other complaints in the future, please bring them to the court. It is our wish that all injustices be punished and all virtue rewarded."
"But most Honorable Honor," the shopkeeper protested, "I did not get the money! The thief dropped it from one hand to the other. See! I have nothing." He held up his empty hands to show the judge.
Ōoka stared at him gravely. "It is the court's judgement that the punishment should fit the crime. I have decided that the price of the smell of food shall be the sound of money. Justice has prevailed as usual in my court."