Yakuza bosses such as Satoru Nomura had a big following through fanzines.

TOKYO – In a court case that may set nail-biting precedents for Japan’s mob kingpins, the boss of the country’s most violent gang was sentenced to death for murder last week.

The sentence, which made headline news in Japan, marks a break from the practices of the past.

Customarily, if you were a top yakuza boss in Japan, and your henchmen killed someone, you could make a large payment, quietly apologize and get away with it. Your subordinate who did the deed would do the time.

So the August 24 verdict, which used circumstantial evidence in its case, marks a new and important legal milestone for police and prosecutors in their fight against the yakuza, who remain deeply entrenched in Japanese business and politics.

It’s no coincidence that the sentence was delivered just weeks after the Olympics ended.  No one wanted to anger a gang with a penchant for using hand grenades to make a point.

But it was not just violence that gave the story spice. One assault victim was a nurse who had handled the after-care of the mob boss after he had undergone a penis enlargement procedure.

The nurse was allegedly attacked because Satoru Nomura was not happy with his penis enlargement surgery and the hair removal around his crotch, and was angered that the nurse treated him like just any whiny patient.

She dismissed his complaints about pain by saying, “This can’t possibly hurt as much as getting one of those yakuza tattoos.”

Noose for Nomura

It’s no coincidence that the sentence was delivered just weeks after the Olympics ended.  No one wanted to anger a gang with a penchant for using hand grenades to make a point.

Nomura, head of the Fukuoka-based Kudo-kai and his second-in-command, who stood accused of one murder, three counts of attempted murder and other charges, were respectively sentenced to death and life imprisonment by the Fukuoka District Court on August 24.

A yakuza gang member with iconic tattoos. Image: Twitter

According to a National Police Agency source, the verdict was scheduled after the Olympics, for fear that it could have resulted in bloody and internationally embarrassing actions from the hyper-violent Kudo-kai.

Yes, there is an understanding about these matters. The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest mob, suspended its six-year war with rival organizations during the Games after a polite request from the authorities.

Nomura was not pleased with his sentence.

He growled at Presiding Judge Ben Adachi. “I asked for a fair decision. This isn’t fair. You’ll regret this for your whole life.”

Nomura has already appealed. Meanwhile, police have assigned protection to those involved in the trial, including Adachi.

The death sentence was remarkable in that there was no direct proof that the dapper 74-year-old Nomura had ordered the attacks.

That the case was ever brought to trial shows a new resolve by the authorities to prosecute senior yakuza – even without a slam-dunk case. It looks like the death knell for mobsters who attack “civilians” – Japanese not linked to organized crime.

The verdict was the culmination of a seven-year effort by the Fukuoka Prefectural Police, the prosecutors and the National Police Agency to take down the Kudo-kai.

Japan’s scariest mob

The Kudo-kai is undeniably Japan’s most violent mob, though they were founded before World War II as a fraternity of gamblers. At the height of their power in 2008, the Kudo-kai had 1,2000 members and collected cash from construction companies, waste disposal operators, demolition firms, bars and local merchants.

Men show traditional Japanese tattoos related to the yakuza during the annual Sanja Matsuri festival in the Asakusa district of Tokyo on May 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri

Though based in Fukuoka, they owned front-companies and enterprises in Tokyo. The group collected millions of dollars each year.

Under Nomura, they reacted to the gradual tightening of anti-organized crime laws which cut into their income with increasing violence. They threatened construction companies with violence if they didn’t give kickbacks. When some builders refused, the gang attacked their major customers.

Similarly, the Kudo-kai viciously attacked club owners that wouldn’t pay protection, slashing the faces of bar owners and hostesses and in 2003, threw a hand grenade into the club of a merchant leading an anti-yakuza movement. They have deployed rocket launchers and machine guns in gang wars and several unsolved murders are believed to be connected to the gang.

Blades, bullets and blood

The court ruled that Nomura was responsible for four attacks on civilians. The most serious was the shooting death of the former head of a fishing cooperative, Kunihiro Kajiwara, 70. Kajiwara was shot four times, once at point-blank range in the head, and died on a street in Kitakyushu City in 1998.

In April 2012, a former Fukuoka Prefectural Police captain, who had long been in charge of investigating gangsters, was shot in the left leg and other parts of his body on a street in Kitakyushu City.

In January 2013, the nurse was stabbed in the head on a street in Hakata Ward, Fukuoka City.

In May of 2014, a male dentist was stabbed in the leg and stomach in a parking lot. He was a relative of a former fishery cooperative leader.

Shinobu Tsukasa, also known as Kenichi Shinoda, the godfather of Japan’s largest and deadliest yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, gets into a car in Kobe, western Japan, on April 9, 2011, after his release from prison. Photo: AFP / JIJI Press

The murder of Kajiwara had been a cold case but in 2014, Fukuoka Police reviewed court records and found enough evidence to reopen the investigation.  Kajiwara’s successor in the fishery cooperative, his younger brother, Tadayoshi Ueno, also met a grim fate.

Ueno spoke to a magazine, Friday, about the murder.

“My brother was shot several times at close range. After his death when I took over as the union president, I began to receive frequent threatening phone calls,” he recalled. The Kudo-kai sought a role in a public project, the reclamation of land for a port off Kitakyushu City.

“The man who called me was arrested for extortion, but there were subsequent incidents in which bullets were shot into my house and my nephew’s house,” Ueno said.

In December 2013, Ueno was shot to death on the street. The case is unsolved.

On the oyabun’s command

The crux of the case was whether or not there had been orders from the top in the attacks.

In all four cases, members of the Kudo-kai had been arrested and convicted for the crimes. The prosecutors argued that Nomura gave an order in the murder case and that the other three crimes were conducted under a chain of command that began with Nomura. 

Given how the yakuza gangs operate, the prosecution’s arguments are critical.

A yakuza proverb illustrates the vertical power structure in the organization: “If the oyabun (godfather) says a passing crow is white, it is white.” 

Petty crime is low in areas controlled by the Yakuza. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Indeed, Kudo-kai wakaishu (literally, “the young crowd” – but a more appropriate translation might by “foot soldiers”) did not give themselves marching orders – a fact established after a hugely complex process of information gathering.

Police and prosecutors, in 62 hearings, using the testimony of 91 people, including former gang members and police officers, made the case that Nomura called the shots.  The evidence also included wiretap recordings of Kudo-kai members discussing their remuneration for attacking the nurse. 

In many cases of violent crimes committed by yakuza, the top dogs are never even brought in for questioning, partly due to the habits of bosses who rarely give direct, explicit orders.

‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’

When yakuza bosses want someone killed or made to vanish, they customarily mutter, “The world would be a better place without (add target name here) around.” Then, his subordinates act accordingly – or so they often claim.

A former Yamaguchi-gumi boss, Tadamasa Goto, was infamous for using such excuses to avoid criminal prosecution.

In 1992, his gang members attacked renowned film director Itami Juzo and slashed open his face, a move that brought worldwide attention to Japan’s yakuza problem.  Itami had made an anti-yakuza film, The Gentle Japanese Art of Extortion (Minbō no Onna) which lampooned the yakuza and most particularly Goto’s crew, portraying them as greedy, scheming thugs with no honor.

Film director Juzo Itam was attacked because gangsters did not like a movie he made about them. Photo: AFP: Jiji Press

In his biography, Habakarinagara (“Pardon me, but….”) published in 2010, Goto never admitted to ordering the attack. But he wrote that it was only natural that his gang members would retaliate “because [the director] made fun of us and his movie was unpleasant.” 

He praised his underlings for telepathically understanding his dislike of the director and the film.

Weak legal mechanisms

Japan’s organized crime groups exist in the open and have done for over a century. They are banned but this ban is not regulated.

Mobs still have office buildings and the upper echelon even sport business cards with the gang logo.  The largest, Kobe’s Yamaguchi-gumi, in Kobe, was founded on August 27, 1915.

Up until 2017, several yakuza fanzines celebrated the histories of the groups, reported on the latest gang wars, and featured interviews with bosses including Nomura.  (Given that Japanese mobsters spend a lot of time hanging around in bathhouses, the magazines carried advertisements for penis enlargement, a process Nomura underwent.)

Due to pressure from the police, the last monthly fanzine, Jitsuwa Jidai, folded in September 2019.

Japan does not have a criminal conspiracy law similar to RICO, which helped bring about the demise of the mob in the United States. And until 2019, there was no plea bargaining allowed, so it has been notoriously difficult to grab a crime boss for a murder committed by his subordinates. Nor is there a formalized witness protection program or witness relocation program.

Thus, there has been no incentive for a lower-ranking member to rat out his seniors, while there are a million reasons – knives, suspicious suicides, fatal “accidents” – to stay quiet. Mobsters who serve time for the greater good of the gang are rewarded upon getting out of jail with cash and status.

Strong social contract

The death penalty for Nomura reflects the fact that the Kudo-kai, under his tutelage, violated the accepted norms of yakuza behavior.  Simply put: In Japan, even yakuza are expected to behave. 

The mob has been tolerated in Japan because there were things that they would not do. Most yakuza groups have on their walls a list of precepts that ban certain criminal activities.

Most gangs forbid common theft, armed robbery, sexual assault, and the nebulous “anything that is not in harmony with the chivalrous way” – itself a statement on the honorable life gangsters like to believe they live.  Ostensibly, most groups forbid the use and trafficking of drugs.

The former Kudo-kai yakuza headquarters building in Kitakyusyu City, later demolished in a tax dispute with local authorities. Photo: AFP / Katsumi Tanaka / The Yomiuri Shimbun

A particular unwritten rule is “the yakuza do not bother civilians (katagi).” 

Some mobs that upheld these rules operated more like low-rent security companies than gangs. They offered actual services for the protection money received and made additional revenue running illegal gambling dens and festivals. In many yakuza neighborhoods, street crime was very low because petty theft is simply not acceptable.

Ironically, the Kudo-kai has a code of honor, the Kudo-kai Constitution – which forbids victimizing civilians. But as prosecutors pointed out, the leaders ignored their own rules and never punished members caught attacking civilians.

Retired Yamaguchi-gumi boss Satoru Takegaki, who now works rehabilitating yakuza, made a piquant observation during the hearings about the attack on the nurse.

“The number two of the Kudo-kai was asked by his lawyers, ‘So is it now acceptable for the yakuza to attack civilians?’ ….It makes you think, what are the merits of being in an organized crime group [that has abandoned yakuza morality]?”

There has been a traditional understanding among police and prosecutors that yakuza-yakuza violence was a separate category from crimes involving civilians. An old joke amongst organized crime cops goes:

Q: “What crime is it when a yakuza kills another yakuza?”

A: “Destruction of property!”

During the court proceedings, the prosecutors argued Nomura should receive the maximum penalty possible. Their reasoning: “Because none of his crimes involved rival gang members, but were all civilians.”

Part 2 of this series will look at how yakuza godfathers remain at large, their connections with high politics and even the Olympics Games, and the possible ramifications of the Nomura case.