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Kudo-kai crime syndicate head Satoru Nomura (in white) is seen during a police raid in 2010. He was sentenced to death for his role in a murder and three attempted murders. Photo: Reuters

Japan steps up fight against ‘yakuza’ crime groups, with arrest, death sentence

  • A member of the Yamaguchi-gumi crime group was arrested over a murder, days after Satoru Nomura, head of the Kudo-kai, was sentenced to death
  • The Tokyo Olympic Games and the coronavirus pandemic slowed Japan’s campaign to clamp down on organised crime, but this is picking up again
A senior member of Japan’s largest ‘yakuza’ crime group has been arrested on suspicion of killing a man in a drunken argument on Sunday, just days after the head of a rival gang was sentenced to death for his role in one murder and the attempted killing of three other people.

Masaharu Abe, a 54-year-old member of the Yamaguchi-gumi crime group, was charged with beating the unnamed man in his apartment in Tokyo’s Edogawa district, the Sankei newspaper reported. The two men had been drinking.

His arrest follows the August 24 sentencing of Satoru Nomura, the head of the notorious Kudo-kai yakuza group, who was found guilty of one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder.

The court in the southern city of Fukuoka handed down the country’s first death sentence for the head of an organised crime group, even though the evidence against Nomura was largely circumstantial and relied on confessions by his underlings that they carried out attacks on his orders.

Jake Adelstein, an authority on Japanese underworld groups and the author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, said the severity of the sentence underlines that prosecutors and the police are stepping up their efforts to “push the yakuza into oblivion”.

Japan gives yakuza criminal gangs the finger

He conceded, however, that while authorities will try to make Abe another example of their recent crackdown, a death sentence is unlikely.

“The police have been given new powers in recent years to tackle organised crime, but this was one death in a spur-of-the-moment incident when he was drunk,” Adelstein said.

“It is also quite likely that the victim was also a yakuza member rather than a ‘civilian’, like in the Kudo-kai case, which puts the killing into a different category in the eyes of the authorities.”

A police officer stands guard during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Photo: Reuters

The Kudo-kai attacks were all premeditated, Adelstein said, and involved the 1988 fatal shooting of the head of a fisheries cooperative, the attempted killing in 2012 of a police officer investigating the gang, a knife attack the following year on a nurse at a clinic where Nomura had undergone a procedure, and a failed murder attempt in 2014 against a relative of the fisheries official.

“The authorities have been really cracking down on the underworld for the last few years, although that campaign has slowed for a couple of reasons over the last year or so,” Adelstein said. The coronavirus pandemic slowed the effort as police were wary of making as many arrests over fears of the virus spreading in detention facilities, while gangsters were not as busy with their traditional sources of income, including protection rackets for restaurants and bars, underground gambling dens and the sex trade.
Equally, the police wanted to avoid any clashes with the underworld that could lead to negative media coverage in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympic Games, he said.

“I do not think it was a coincidence that the sentencing of the Kudo-kai leader only came after the Games had concluded, and I am sure that we will now see the campaign to destroy the gangs ramp up again,” he said.

The effort has already paid dividends, with the Kudo-kai down from a peak of around 1,200 members in 2008 to just over 400 today. It is a similar story at other underworld groups, with the National Police Agency estimating there were 25,900 gang members across the country in 2020, down 70 per cent from 2010.

I would not personally want to be that judge
Jake Adelstein

Yet Adelstein said it would be a mistake to count the most hardened yakuza out entirely, a belief supported by the thinly veiled threats that Nomura made to the judge who sentenced him to death last week.

“You will regret this as long as you live,” Nomura said to judge Ben Adachi.

Even with the gang leader behind bars, the authorities are concerned that one of Nomura’s acolytes may read his comments as a chance to exercise ‘sontaku’ – carrying out an act of revenge and accepting responsibility to please the leader. Police have assigned bodyguards to the judge, other court officials and individuals who testified against Nomura in court.

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“Those precautions are completely warranted,” said Adelstein, pointing out that the Kudo-kai is considered Japan’s most violent gang and is the only one designated a “grossly vicious group” by the police.

“It’s very possible that other members of the group will choose to interpret Nomura’s words in court as an order to target the judge and take it upon themselves to avenge him,” Adelstein said.

“A ‘sontaku’ order lasts until the person who issued it withdraws it or the target is dead, so I would not personally want to be that judge.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Arrest shows campaign against yakuza has resumed