As Japan’s Yakuza Crowd Weakens, Former Gangsters Struggle to Find a Role Outside of Crime | Way of life

KITAKYUSHU, Japan – Noodle chef Takashi Nakamoto moves so skillfully as he boils, sifts and arranges his signature udon platters that it’s easy to forget the stark reminder of his old life: his missing left little finger.

In three decades, Nakamoto has risen through the ranks of Kudo-kai, a violent union of once powerful yakuza, a Japanese criminal network whose members have been shattered by more aggressive law enforcement.

This effort has also led to more defectors like Nakamoto, who are trying to reinvent themselves after a life within the yakuza family hierarchies, governed by a strict code of loyalty. The limbs are often visible, with tattoos all over their body and crowd-amputated pinkies as punishment for wrongdoing.

For years the yakuza have operated somewhat openly. He was watched by the police, with the understanding that the yakuza would deal with petty crime in their territory and leave ordinary citizens alone. But now the Japanese authorities are applying more pressure as the power of the yakuza begins to erode.

In 2015, while serving his last prison sentence, Nakamoto reflected on where he was going. He had lost confidence in the organization and in its future. It was time to go.

“Even though I left the yakuza world, I learned a lot. And part of what’s at the heart is still the same,” said Nakamoto, 55, sitting in his udon restaurant in Kitakyushu, a town from southern Japan which is the home of the Kudo-kai.

“I was ready to do anything and die for my organization,” he said, “and now I’m shifting gears with the same mindset and putting that determination into living and working in a normal society.”

But finding normalcy is not easy for former Yakuza members, who face social stigma and significant legal hurdles. Some government programs offer financial support to members in transition from crowd life, but many doors remain closed.

Yakuza membership is plummeting – the result of a decade of intensified crackdowns targeting organized crime and the reach of the Yakuza in illegal activities including drug trafficking, money laundering and criminalization. gambling.

There were around 70,300 known Yakuza members in 2011, but that number had fallen to 25,900 by 2020, according to the National Center for the Elimination of Criminal Organizations. The exodus allowed long-time members like Nakamoto to leave the organization without fear of reprisal for breaking the code of loyalty.

On August 24, a Japanese court handed down what would be the first death sentence for a yakuza leader, Kudo-kai leader Satoru Nomura, who was convicted of playing a role in attacks on four civilians, including one who was murdered.

The verdict sent a wider message that times were changing for the yakuza.

After his conviction, Nomura shouted at the judge, “You will regret it for the rest of your life.” (The verdict is now on appeal. Nomura’s attorneys later said the statement was not intended as a threat.)

“I think the punishment is having an impact on the yakuza world as the restrictions and regulations for the yakuza as a whole will continue to get stricter,” said Garyo Okita, a former member of the yakuza who now writes semi-autobiographical books and supervises Japanese crime film projects. groups. “Now that there is a death sentence precedent, Kudo-kai will not be considered an extreme case, but all yakuza will be seen as the same threat. “

A new phase for the Japanese underworld

About a decade ago, yakuza groups had become so brazen and financially powerful that Japanese authorities issued ordinances prohibiting any business or person from being associated with a Yakuza member or activity.

The laws were designed to isolate the yakuza from society, said Noboru Hirosue, a leading expert on criminal sociology and yakuza.

This meant that yakuza members could no longer open bank accounts, rent houses, purchase insurance, or obtain cell phones. Okita, who quit the largest union, Yamaguchi-gumi, in 2014, said the crackdown also restricted the families of yakuza members and others in their social circles.

These changes led to the early retirement of the former Yakuza chiefs, and many underlings withdrew as well.

“The law has had a huge impact on the yakuza world,” Okita said.

But Hirosue, who works as a probation officer at the Justice Department, said the changes had led to an increase in other criminal networks besides the yakuza. These groups have now embarked on new schemes including elder fraud, cybercrime and ways to profit from legal drugs such as sleeping pills and morphine, he said.

“Now the Japanese underworld has entered a new phase,” Hirosue said.

“Starting from less, working towards zero”

Motohisa Nakamizo, who left Kudo-kai in 2011 when her boss retired, was hired in her parents’ real estate company. It was his first legitimate job after about 30 years dealing with the Kudo-kai drug trade.

But such opportunities are rare.

Local regulations prohibit former members from activities such as opening a bank account or signing a lease for at least five years after leaving the network.

According to Hirosue’s analysis of the Justice Department’s employment figures for former yakuza members who register their defections with the police, as few as 3% of those who left between 2010 and 2018 found a use. Some who cannot find jobs return to their yakuza organization, but others join new gangs, he said.

“When you come out of prison or a yakuza organization, you have to think that for the first five years you are not like everyone else. People often talk about starting from scratch, but we start less, we work towards zero. ” said Nakamizo, 56, sitting in his office in Hakata, a town near Kitakyushu.

Nakamizo is now hiring former members of his real estate company under a program of the Ministry of Justice. Yet only about 10% of them pass the first five years. The others usually end up returning to crime.

“I want society as a whole not to be prejudiced and (give) these people a chance,” he said. “Otherwise, it will leave them nowhere to go and lead them down the wrong path.” “

Many face an education gap that is difficult to close. For example, Ryuichi Komura left Yamaguchi-gumi at age 38. His formal education ended in college and he served four prison terms.

“I wanted to change my life,” he said. But his chances of finding a stable job were low. He was interested in law, but as a former member of the yakuza it was virtually impossible for him to become a lawyer.

Instead, he decided to take the test to become a forensic writer, a job similar to being a paralegal which has an acceptance rate of 3%. It took him eight years of study, and on his seventh try, he was successful. He was 46 years old.

“You must be the one to reach out”

Twenty years ago, members of Kudo-kai crashed into a car at a teahouse in Kitakyushu. It was an act of revenge against the store owner, Toshiyuki Tsuji, who, in order to prevent the gang from settling in the neighborhood, had bought a building that the Kudo-kai wanted.

So when Chef Udon Nakamoto attempted to open his restaurant in the Tsuji shopping district – while still under the five-year ban – the cards seemed to be playing against him.

But Nakamoto formed one-on-one relationships with other vendors, was honest about his time with the Kudo-kai, picked up trash on the streets, and volunteered for festivals and events in the shopping district.

“Nothing will change if you wait for the five years to pass just because there are restrictions,” he said. “You can’t just wait for people to come to you and help you, but you have to be the first to reach out.”

Tsuji was impressed and took a chance. As the chef of the shopping district, Tsuji accepted Nakamoto’s request to open his udon restaurant.

“Even if someone is an ex-yakuza, if someone comes to me, I would talk to them first, looking them in the eye to see if they really want to start over and be serious,” Tsuji said. “Everyone deserves the fundamental freedom to work.”

On a recent weekday, a constant stream of patrons had lunch at Nakamoto’s 13-seat restaurant, tucked down an alley between a barber shop and a laundromat. He always volunteers for festivals and sweeps the streets without being asked.

His black long-sleeved shirt covers his tattoos as he works. But he doesn’t hide his past: A newspaper article featuring his story is framed on the wall, and in the restaurant’s bathroom are Japanese comics about a former yakuza boss turned devoted husband.

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