Today, we’re taking a break from all the gore and misery of serial killers, and veering off into the wild world of oriental organised crime. Few gangsters are more iconic than Japan’s tattoo-covered yakuza. Japan’s mafia clans have been popularised in everything from movies to video games, and even have their own dedicated fan magazines.
Despite their place in popular culture, real-life yakuza culture is actually in decline. Government crackdowns and internal schisms have been turning the screw on the gangs, and their ranks are dwindling fast as a result. But against this backdrop of rapid decline, there’s one group that seems determined to go down all-guns-blazing.
At this moment, an operatic true crime saga is just about wrapping up in the Japanese courts: one of the nation’s top mafia gangs — by far the most ruthless of their time — is being held to account for decades of violence. We’ll be looking into the story of their decades-long reign of terror, and the push-back from the cops and ordinary citizens which eventually brought them down.
This is the story of the Kudo-Kai: the downfall of Japan’s most violent yakuza.
Death of a Fisherman
Late at night on the 18th of February 1998, Kunihiro Kajiwara walked out of a bar in the southern city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture. The 70-year-old was the head of a fisheries co-operative, out for drinks with colleagues. Earlier in the week, Kajiwara had voiced his opposition to the construction of a marine pier in the city, which either meant he was hopelessly ignorant, or extremely brave.
That’s because the company which was proposing the construction project was backed by the local mafia — the Kudo-Kai. And even among the rogues’ gallery of Japanese yakuza gangs, this lot were well known for pulling zero punches. Mr Kajiwara was about to find that out the hard way.
As he stumbled out onto the street on that cold February night, two men in black approached him. One of them drew a pistol, and shot the old man four times from point blank range. Kajiwara was left dying in a pool of his own blood. There was little doubt who was to blame — the old man wasn’t the first victim of this kind of mob retaliation, and he would be far from the last.
His murder is the first episode in a decades-long saga which ultimately ended with the downfall of the mafia boss who ordered the hit, and the subsequent collapse of his vicious gang. But unfortunately for the people of Kyushu, they still had a few more decades of bloodshed ahead of them.
Before we go any further, a bit of background on exactly who these guys are. The Kudo-Kai, like many other Japanese yakuza clans, began back in the pre-war days, as an illegal gambling outfit. Throughout the 20th century, they grew in power to become the dominant criminal group in the post-industrial city of Kitakyushu, down on Japan’s southernmost main island.
They generally hire their new recruits from youth gangs and the prison population, sending their employees to work in drug dealing, prostitution, racketeering, and all that fun stuff. And it’s big money business: one ex member reported making almost $19k a month collecting drug debts. Ten years of smashing kneecaps and you can already start thinking about retiring — not a bad deal at all.
But it’s not all about vice and violence; what’s especially surprising for an outsider is how public these mafias are. Each is a publicly registered organisation, and they conduct legal business above board while ruling the underworld behind the scenes. The clans even have their own publicly registered headquarters. For our criminal kings of Kitakyushu, that’s Kudokai Hall: a white-walled compound in the centre of the city, protected with barbed wire and security cameras.
From here, boss Satoru Nomura — who took power around 12 years ago — orchestrated the gang’s activities. He might not immediately appear threatening (in fact, with his tailored suit and slicked-back hair, he looks like any number of everyday salarymen). However, he’s definitely not someone you’d want to mess with. At the end of 2014, he had an estimated 870 members and affiliates under his command, willing to slash his enemies to ribbons at the drop of a hat.
Yeah, Nomura’s gang really seem to have missed the memo about keeping a low profile. While most yakuza follow a strict code of conduct, which prohibits the murder of civilians, these guys just kind of say… fuck that noise. So, if you sign up with the Kudo-Kai, you’re pretty much guaranteed the full GTA experience: fast cars, heavy weaponry, and heaps of unnecessary violence. I’m not exaggerating: in 2012 the police even busted one member for possession of a rocket launcher. That’s a four-star wanted level right off the bat.
They’re not shy about using their arsenal of assault weapons either. For example, when Chinese triads tried to muscle in on their turf by opening a ‘massage parlour’ without their blessing, the Kudo-Kai responded by lobbing frag grenades at the Chinese Consulate, and assaulting the building with shotguns.
Even ex-PM Shinzo Abe fell victim to the gang. Back in 2000, his home was pelted with Molotov cocktails by the Kudo-Kai, because one of his aides refused to pay a bribe. When you’re too mental even for your fellow yakuza, nobody is off limits.
But alas, ‘twas the indiscriminate mental-ness of the Kudo-Kai that would ultimately lead to their downfall…
Campaign of Terror
So now you’re aware who we’re dealing with: the Kudo-Kai are more like full-blown domestic terrorists than standard mafiosos. Throughout the past fifty years, they regularly employed these shock-and-awe tactics to gain a stranglehold over the construction world in their territory, with Boss Nomura ordering an ever-escalating string of attacks against anyone who disagreed.
Hence the murder of the aforementioned fishing co-op head in 1998. These intimidation tactics allowed Boss Nomura to charge anything from 1 to 3% of all contracting work in the city. Two low-level thugs went down for the murder not long after, but everyone knew the orders had come down from way on high. Still, so long as the top bosses kept their own hands clean, the law was powerless to stop them.
However things started to really heat up around 2011, when the city — and the nation as a whole — started pushing back against organised crime. One year prior, the government passed a law making it mandatory to report extortion attempts. From then on, if ordinary citizens were caught associating with the gangs, they themselves could be jailed or fined. Laws like this signalled the death of the golden era of gangsters.
While many of the biggest yakuza organisations took the hint, and started expanding their legal operations, the Kudo-Kai took a different approach. (Have you seen the last act of Scarface? A little like that). What follows is basically a greatest hits from the past ten years, showcasing the mental stuff Boss Nomura and his merry men got up to.
In February 2011, a middle-aged security guard showed up for work at a Shimizu Corporation construction site. He was an ex-cop, who landed the gig after retirement.
Usually the job would just mean stopping teenagers from hopping the fence, but unfortunately, this guy’s employer had recently pissed off the city’s top crime gang. Shimuzu Corp was among several companies who had banded together against the Kudo-Kai’s racketeering attempts, and refused to pay. But if the Kudo-Kai weren’t paid in cash, they collected their debts in blood.
Over the past five years, they had been launching regular attacks against the company’s offices, so the employees basically knew what to expect. After the 17th time a frag grenade knocks your coffee mug over, you barely even bat an eyelid.
Nonetheless, the guard was taken by surprise that night, when a black car slowed down by his post at around 7pm. As the car cruised past the entrance to the construction site, the passenger rolled down his window. The guard shouted out, and the reply was a gunshot, which caught him in the stomach. As he crumpled to the ground, the driver sped off.
For a gang famous for their hatred of police, this attack meant killing two birds with one stone. Thankfully, they didn’t actually kill the guy — he was rushed to hospital and made a full recovery. His near-death experience served as a warning for any other companies considering stepping out of line…
But apparently the message didn’t really stick. Just 9 months after that ex-cop took a 9mm round to the gut, the gang came up against another problematic firm. The Hakushin Kensetsu company was chaired by 72-year-old Toshihiro Uchino, and it was he who had the final say in choosing a subcontractor for a big job in the winter of 2011.
Just like the fishery co-op manager from before, he refused to bend to Kudo-Kai pressure, and rejected their chosen firm’s bid. The gang exacted their revenge while the elderly man was returning home, after watching a sumo tournament in the next city over with his wife.
As he stepped out of his car, two men on a motorbike rode up the street — the one on the back fired two shots from a handgun. One of them hit Uchino in the neck. The elderly executive bled out on his own front doorstep, as his wife and friends desperately tried to treat the wounds.
Now, gunning down pensioners doesn’t exactly sit well with the ‘chivalrous gangster’ image that many associate with the yakuza, so these killings didn’t quite have the effect that Boss Nomura hoped for. If anything, it seems like their ruthlessness was actually starting to work against them.
Their opponents in the industry banded together with the fed up citizens of Kitakyushu to lead public demonstrations against the gang’s influence. As nationwide anti-yakuza laws ramped up, the public felt ever more confident in openly opposing them. Even the mayor of Kitakyushu spoke out.
So the Kudo-Kai responded the only way they knew how. Slashing attacks against civilians, and arson attacks against anti-yakuza businesses spiked. The mayor started receiving death threats to his office, and had to ramp up his own security.
It seems like the Kudo-Kai would happily put a blade or bullet in every single person in the city, if that’s what it took to bring them to heel…
It wasn’t just industry magnates aad politicians on their kill list either; even the police were considered fair game. Around this time investigators were close to building a convincing tax evasion case against Boss Nomura, so his gang decided to send a signal directly to the top ranks of the force.
On April 19th 2012, former detective Yasuo Hiroishi was walking to work through a residential part of Kitakyushu, at about 7am. Onlookers watched in horror as a man on a motorbike rode up beside the 61-year-old, and pulled out a gun. The rider shot the ex-cop in the hip before speeding off.
No prizes for guessing who was behind the attack; Hiroishi was one of the city’s top detectives in his day, and took a firm stance against the Kudo-Kai throughout his entire career. The renegade cop had stepped down the previous year, citing fears for he and his family’s safety (good call). All things considered, he got off relatively lightly with just a hospital visit, considering he was a thorn in the gang’s side since 1978.
An office lady managed to prop him up against a wall, and called an ambulance. Hiroishi was back on his feet after about a month of recovery. The Kudo-Kai, however, would never quite recover from this. Because, seeing as one of their own had been attacked, the police response was massive.
Over 120 officers converged on Kudo-Kai hall. While twenty special-weapons officers in tactical gear kept watch outside, the rest ransacked the gang HQ for evidence. Later that day, as a middle finger directed straight at Boss Nomura himself, prosecutors indicted him for tax evasion.
A huge chunk of the racketeering profits which had trickled up to the chief through his underlings had been uncovered, revealing that Nomura had successfully avoided a modest ¥319 million in income tax (about $2.9 million). Don’t ever let anyone tell you that crime doesn’t pay.
As we move into 2013, the noose is starting to tighten on Boss Nomura and his crew. The cops made a habit of frequently raiding his home and other Kudo-Kai properties, trying to shake out the gang. All of this added stress did nothing to cool Boss Nomura’s famously volatile temperament, which brings us to the most outstanding (and most absurd) charge on his rap sheet.
Towards the end of 2012, the then 66-year-old yakuza boss went to a clinic in the city of Fukuoka for what newspapers intriguingly refer to as “cosmetic surgery on his genitals”. As you know, on this show we ask the difficult questions that others are just too damn afraid to ask. So…
…are we talking like a mole removal or something?… Or a face-lift kind of deal? I think we’ll just chalk this one up as an unsolved mystery, and move on: you did;t tune in for these mental images. Anyway, whatever he was in for, Boss Nomura was apparently extremely unhappy with the results of his netherregions nip-and-tuck.
Fukuoka City prosecutors say that he “unjustifiably resented the failed surgery” and conspired to exact his revenge against the clinic. This meant targeting a female nurse who was part of the surgical team that day. Apparently Boss Wonkyknob found her especially disrespectful during his little medical ordeal.
So, in January 2013, he allegedly had one of his Kudo-Kai lackeys track her down. While the innocent woman was walking home from work, the gangster jumped her, and stabbed her in the chest and neck. Imagine ordering a woman stabbed in the neck because she didn’t treat your elderly genitals with enough respect. It doesn’t exactly scream ‘mental stability’.
Once again though, the victim survived. Despite being understandably traumatised, her ordeal would eventually prove essential to bringing the old yakuza boss to justice…
Nomura’s reign of terror was fast coming to an end, and he must have been able to sense it. Towards the end of 2013, raids on his properties were becoming increasingly frequent. And something big was cooking over at the Fukuoka Prefecture police headquarters: unbeknownst to the Kudo-Kai, investigators had re-opened the murder case from 1998.
Not content with pinning the crime on the low-level enforcers who carried out the hit, they were looking to trace the culpability right up the chain of command. And as the police’s attention returned to that case, the Kudo-Kai once again targeted the family of the deceased. Here’s where the story starts to come full circle.
In December 2013, the Kudo-Kai once again targeted the head of that same fishing co-operative. Now it was a man called Tadayoshi Ueno, who several sources report was the younger brother of the murdered chairman from 1998. The family and organisation continued to stand up against the mafia even after that murder, and this once again put them at the top of the gang’s hit list.
At about 8am on the 20th of December, the new chief executive was taking out the trash at his Kitakyushu home. A car was parked some way down the street, and as the old man stepped out his front door, the driver fired up the engine and rolled past his driveway.
Tadayoshi Ueno was shot down, and found some minutes later by a passerby. Unfortunately paramedics were unable to save him, and he died at the scene. He was 70 years old, the same age his older brother was when he was gunned down fifteen years prior. If there’s one thing Nomura is known for (besides his love of violence and apathy towards taxes) it’s his superhuman ability to hold a grudge.
As if more proof of that is needed, five months later, a Kudo-Kai member stabbed a 29-year-old dentist as he got out of his car in a parking lot. The guy’s only crime was being the grandson of Ueno (and the great-nephew of the first murdered chairman). If at first they do not heed, stab, shoot, and stab again.
They probably have another motto, but I think that one fits better…
By mid 2014, the case against the Kudo-Kai top brass was looking increasingly strong. It was always expected that their underlings would go to prison silently, staying loyal to the boss even if it meant losing decades of their lives. This made it extremely difficult to nab the top dogs.
But after undisclosed ‘new evidence’ emerged in the 1998 murder case, Kitakyushu City prosecutors were able to conclusively prove that the hitmen were not acting on their own behalf — the orders came from on high. This set a dangerous precedent for the Kudo-Kai leaders. For the first time since that botched genital surgery, Boss Nomura was well and truly sweating.
It all came to a head in the second week of September 2014, when over 530 riot police officers were secretly transported down to Kitakyushu from around Japan. Clearly something big was about to go down. On the 11th, these officers were deployed to key Kudo-Kai locations around the city, while local officers surrounded the house of Boss Satoru Nomura. If this story ever gets turned into a film, this bit would be the final showdown.
At 7:20am that morning, the mafia head’s house was raided, and he was served with an indictment: a murder charge for the 1998 killing. He thought he was immune from prosecution so long as he let his soldiers do the killing, but times they were ‘a changin’.
As Nomura was carried off in the back of a police car, his Kudo-Kai bodyguards stood by the side of the road and bowed…
They probably thought the arrest was all a bit of theatre for the news cameras: a legal pantomime to humiliate the Kudo-Kai boss for daring to mess with the cops directly. After all, Boss Nomura had been virtually untouchable for years. But Nomura’s underlings grew nervous as the charges started to pile up — the Fukuoka City prosecutors were very much for real this time.
After all, once a precedent was set by slapping Nomura with the 1998 case, why not try pinning the rest of his gang’s crimes on him too? The argument was that, since the Kudo-Kai emphasised absolute loyalty, and absolute obedience, there was only one man at the source of all that terror.
As his subordinates were scooped up and convicted for many of the crimes we’ve covered today, Nomura’s odds at dying a free man started rapidly dwindling. The month after his arrest, the nurse’s stabbing was added to the mix. The next year, further charges were tacked on for the stabbing of the dentist, and another non-fatal shooting of a contractor. Then in 2017, he landed his fifth arrest for the shooting of the ex-detective, thanks to wire-tap evidence.
Taken separately, all of the incidents just represented a pattern of gang violence. But prosecutors managed to weave together them into a complete narrative, of a crime boss wielding his tyrannical power over a city. This kind of case is unprecedented in Japanese legal history, making Boss Nomura something of a poster boy for the government’s crackdown on organised crime.
And as things stand, things are looking pretty bleak for the old boy…
What’s Happening Now?
The Kudo-Kai’s top dog was convicted on tax fraud in 2018, and is still serving a three year sentence for that. A verdict is expected in the murder/assault/conspiracy trial sometime after this summer, so we’ve got that to look forward to, after the Euros and Olympics wrap up.
And the stakes couldn’t be higher: prosecutors have taken the surprising approach of asking for the death penalty for the old mafia boss. That might seem excessive, since only one person actually died in the four attacks he’s on trial for, but the point is that all of these people were innocent civilians.
The yakuza were able to court the establishment for the better part of a century by presenting themselves as a force of order in the underworld — predictable, reasonable, gentlemanly criminals. Nomura, on the other hand, was outfitting his boys with RPGs and telling them to gun down grandads for fun.
Not only did he and his goons break many, many, many laws, their indiscriminate violence went against everything the yakuza were supposed to stand for. Thanks to that, there aren’t many cops, judges, or citizens left who are even the slightest bit sympathetic to little old Nomura-san.
His top lieutenant Fumio Tanoue is getting off comparatively lightly. It’s just a life sentence and 20 million yen fine on the cards for him. Several other top ranking members are facing similar prospects, and if all of them end up getting the maximum sentences, it’ll likely signal the end of an era for the Kudo-Kai, and yakuza culture in general…
Wrap-up: the End of an Era
Whatever happens to the septuagenarian mob boss, it looks like his gang will never quite recover from the judicial onslaught they’ve faced over the past ten years. Its membership has dwindled to around 280, as many old-timers move on to new lives, and those who remain struggle to draw in new recruits to a life of crime.
Some think that Chinese gangs will just muscle into Kitakyushu in their place, and it’s difficult to convince local youngsters to join when they’re likely the ones who’ll be getting their kneecaps smashed. Even the gang’s iconic headquarters has been demolished, after being purchased by an association of retired cops.
You’ll now find ex-Kudo-Kai members occupying many walks of life in Kitakyushu and beyond. Last year, Japanese paper The Mainichi interviewed one of their old debt collectors, now going straight as a delivery man. And in 2018, The Guardian spoke to an enforcer, now running his own udon noodle shop.
Some also went into construction work, thanks to partnerships between police and private companies to give the gangsters a legitimate way to re-enter society. Must have been an awkward first day, when your colleagues recognise you as the guy who once took potshots at them with a 12-gauge.
After all, it’s not tough to identify an ex-yakuza. Even if they cover the tattoos, you can generally spot them by the permanent identifying mark on their hands: a severed left pinkie, self-mutilated to atone for offences against the gang. Despite the stigma of living a normal life with such a dark past, these guys probably picked a good time to leave the life behind, as the courts continue to stamp out yakuza influence around the country.
On the plus side though, if you’ve always wanted to live in Japan but don’t fancy teaching English, I know one company that’s just desperate for staff. If you’re handy with hand grenades and have experience in extortion, send in your CV and I’ll hook you up.
1. If you enjoyed this Far Eastern spin on Goodfellas, there are plenty more interesting stories to dive into from the history of this mental mafia. They have some long-held animosity against Japan’s biggest yakuza organisation, the Yamaguchi-gumi, and even head up a coalition of anti-Yamaguchi crime syndicates. That bloody feud is as good a place to start as any.
2. If Boss Nomura is sentenced to the death penalty, then a pretty awful experience awaits him. I mean, of course being executed is never ideal, but especially so in Japan. Death row inmates are never told when they’re scheduled to die, so they can spend years or even decades living a Kafkaesque nightmare: every day they wake up, wondering if they’ll get the surprise announcement. When it eventually comes, they’re hanged just a few hours later.
3. The practice of finger chopping is called ‘yubitsume’ (literally: ‘finger shortening’). If yakuza fail the gang, they are expected to self-amputate a segment of a finger, starting with the end of the left pinky, and present it to their boss. Interestingly, the practice isn’t only restricted to yakuza; each time I present a script with a typo, Simon makes me chop off a bit of a digit to regain my honour. (Which then makes it more difficult to type — kind of a vicious circle, really).