A yakuza gang member with iconic tattoos. Image: Twitter

TOKYO – A death sentence passed down last week on the kingpin of the most violent of Japan’s yakuza gangs is a critical precedent, given the customary escape mechanisms used successfully by mob godfathers in the past.

The sentence, for one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder, was handed down on August 24 to Satoru Nomura, 74, head of the Fukuoka-based Kudo-kai syndicate. 

Subordinate members of his gang had previously been found guilty of the 1998 murder of the head of a fishing cooperative who had not granted the gang access to a lucrative harbor expansion project, as well as violent assaults on three other persons.

The fact that the Kudo-kai had made an enemy of a key member of the establishment – Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who remains a major player in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party – likely did not improve Nomura’s chances in court.

But what made the Kudo-kai boss legally vulnerable was that his violence was not committed against other mobsters, but against ordinary members of the public. That was a red light for law enforcers who have customarily looked away from gang-on-gang violence.

Yet – even when it comes to a number of attacks on “civilians” by yakuza – the bosses most likely responsible for the crimes have managed to wriggle away from punishment, even as creeping changes in the judicial environment gradually shut these escape windows.

Revisions to Japan’s Organized Crime Countermeasures Law in 2008 made it possible to hold bosses responsible for the actions of their underlings in civil court.

One reason for this change is that it had been almost impossible to get justice in a criminal court.

The murder of Kazuoki Nozaki, a real estate agent, illustrates this. On an evening in March 2006,  he was stabbed to death on a Tokyo street. Nozaki had been evicting members of the Yamguchi-gumi Goto-gumi from a building valued at $20 million, alleging unlawful occupation.

Satoru Nomura faces a life sentence. Photo: Facebook

Infamous uber-godfather Tadamasa Goto had wanted control of the property.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police spent five years working the case, but the prosecution was reluctant to go forward, after a serious hitch. Goto’s former lieutenant, Takashi Kondo, the only gangster allegedly given direct orders to make the hit, was gunned down in Thailand in April 2011.

An officer on the case said, “We wanted to nail the bastard but the prosecutors would never give a thumbs up. They were afraid to try the case on evidence alone.”

The investigation was shelved.

Then, in 2012, the family of Nozaki sued the former crime boss, for the equivalent of $2 million.

Over ten lawyers handled the lawsuit; none of their names were ever published in the coverage of the case. When Asia Times asked one of the lawyers why there were so many of them in a fairly simple lawsuit, the response was, “Goto can’t kill all of us so he’s less likely to kill any of us.”

Goto settled out of court for a reported $1.4 million and apologized to the family, but was never arrested or charged for murder. 

Still, there is one major difference between Nomura and Goto:  The latter was a charismatic individual connected to wealthy Liberal Democratic Party parliamentarians.

He also did dirty work for the religious group Sokka Gakkai – work like silencing critics and intimidating the press. Sokka Gakkai is the backer of New Komeito, the key political party in the current ruling coalition.

Nomura, by contrast, never had a pet senator.

Kudo-kai versus Shinzo Abe

The yakuza and the political sphere have, for decades, been very much intertwined. Indeed, Japan’s ruling party, the LDP, was founded with money from gangster and yakuza affiliate Yoshio Kodama in the 1950s.

Cozy connections continue to the present.

The push to eradicate the yakuza from public life dissipated greatly in 2012, when Prime Minister Abe and the LDP returned to power. In 2019, Abe’s successor and current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was photographed at a cherry blossom viewing event with a member of Japan’s “anti-social forces” – a euphemism that includes yakuza, associates, and some predatory right-wing groups.

Nomura, while connected locally, has no friends in the central government. And ex-Prime Minister Abe has no love for the Kudo-kai: Gang members firebombed his home in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in 2000.

According to a well-researched book about the affair, by investigative journalist Yu Terasawa, Abe’s secretary had hired Kudo-kai associates to besmirch a political rival and then reneged on payment.

The cover page of the August 30, 2020, edition of the Tokyo Shimbun reported on then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s fascination with the yakuza. Photo: Jake Adelstein

While Abe is no longer the national leader, he was in power when the crackdown on the Kudo-kai began. But he was also the leader who brought the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo – an endeavor that seemed to slow attempts to root out the yakuza.

A former vice-chairman of Japan’s Olympic Committee was a close associate of several mob bosses, an association that came to light in 2015.  Investigations into that connection fizzled out and the vice-chairman quietly resigned.

The yakuza reportedly controlled 5% or more of the construction industry when Japan won the Olympic bid in 2013. Placating the mob may even have ensured construction ran smoothly, though the billions of yen in budget overruns may also have been connected to the gangs’ association with the Games. 

Two books have already been published about the yakuza connections to the Olympics, and one more looks to be in the pipeline.

A source at the National Police Agency told Asia Times, “As long as the Olympics were going to be held, the government had an incentive to overlook Japan’s embarrassing yakuza presence. No one wanted to rock the boat or scare away tourists.… No one wanted ‘unfortunate accidents’ taking place at construction sites for the games.”

That sounds prudent. But now that the Games are over, “That brake is no longer there,” the source said. 

That seems borne out by Nomura’s legal fate.

Hang ‘em high

Motō Kakizoe, a lawyer who has spent many years battling organized crime in Hyogo Prefecture praised the decision on Nomura for setting a huge precedent.

“There’s never been a previous case in which the head of a yakuza group was given the death sentence without direct evidence,” he said. “The damage to organized crime in Japan is huge. It is very likely to put a damper on gang wars and crimes [by the yakuza] in the future.”

Masataka Yabu, a former Fukuoka police officer who had spent 16 years battling the Kudo-kai and the author of Fukuoka Police Versus The Yakuza, which delves into Nomura’s shock arrest back in 2014, was also upbeat. 

“We have used analysis, information collection, corroborative investigations and testimony, and we piled up every single piece of evidence to bring down the Kudo-kai from an organization of 1,200 people to 400,” he told Asia Times in an interview that predated the recent verdict. “We were willing to go to battle with circumstantial evidence. We’ve stood up for their victims and brought justice.”

There is no statute of limitations on murder in Japan. It cannot be known how many mob bosses are wondering whether “cold cases” from their past will come back to haunt them after this verdict.

But if retroactive probes should begin, that would change the game massively.

Regardless of that possible future, and regardless of the status of Nomura’s appeal, the recent verdict makes clear that the price of being a yakuza boss has become dangerously high.

In that sense, justice may be following public perceptions.

Yabu, the ex-policeman, was certain that the public is now reaching an understanding   “that the yakuza are no longer a necessary evil in Japan – they’re just evil,” he said. “Time to go!”

This is the second part of a two-part article. The first part may be read here.