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Glimpse at a faded yakuza

Times Staff Writer

FOR all the trouble he’d caused, Nagasaki gangster Tetsuya Shiroo had atoned by cutting off half a little finger and the tips of two others.

And things were not looking up.

The yakuza code calls for troublesome members to perform the joint-by-joint amputations when they upset the bosses. Shiroo was an old-style gangster. A man who believed in the rituals.

But yakuza life was hard and getting harder for Shiroo. Everyone knew he had money troubles. His bosses expected him to kick about $3,000 a month their way in homage, and it was tough coming up with the cash in a city where business had been so bad for so long. Even worse, the once-lucrative option of skimming money from public works projects was dying now that the Japanese government had turned off the geyser of public money.

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Shiroo knew guys living off their wives and girlfriends, others collecting social security. He had tried selling a newfangled brand of paving stones. Had tried peddling $300 statues of dogs to mark the Year of the Dog.

He had health problems too. In more prosperous times Shiroo had been a big man, chubby even, with a slight waddle that led one friend to call him “Penguin Man” (though never to his face). Now he was 59 and weakened by diabetes. Had dropped 25 pounds. Seemed depressed.

Friends wrote off his moods to his separation from his fourth wife, or worries about his 4-year-old son, born with Down syndrome. He seemed listless, his former daughter-in-law said.

But there was no sign of the explosion to come.

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In a cellphone conversation on the afternoon of April 17, Shiroo told a friend he was looking for Nagasaki’s mayor. The city was in the midst of an election and Mayor Itcho Ito was campaigning for a fourth term. Shiroo told his friend he had a document he wanted to show the mayor and asked where to find him.

The friend suggested he wait until the end of the day and try the mayor’s campaign office. Four hours later, Shiroo had an associate drop him off near the spot, where he waited for Ito to return.

When the mayor arrived shortly before 8 p.m., Shiroo stepped up behind him, pulled out a handgun and fired two shots into his back. The bullets knocked Ito onto the rough sidewalk, where he began to bleed to death.

Shiroo tried to run but was tackled by the mayor’s wife and aides. Ito’s wife was screaming as they pinned him to the ground. Some witnesses later told reporters the killer reeked of booze.

Shiroo confessed almost immediately, police said. Told them he had a long-standing grievance with Nagasaki city officials over their refusal to compensate him for damage when his car hit a pothole left by their construction crews. Said he didn’t want Ito to win reelection and had planned the hit for two months. Claimed he acted alone.

Nobody’s buying it. But in the weeks since Ito’s death, the people of Nagasaki have come no closer to knowing what provoked Shiroo to gun down their mayor. Was there a deeper connection, they wonder, between the mayor of this high-profile city and a run-of-the-mill gangster?

“No one understands the real motive,” says Mitsuhiro Suganuma, a former specialist on the yakuza, or crime syndicate, with Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency. “Shiroo knew what kind of trouble he was going to cause, and he knew he would go to jail for the rest of his life. He would not abandon his life for such a small cause.

“The prosecutors have enough evidence to get a conviction at the trial,” Suganuma says. “But they will never find the real motive.”

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Even so, the tale of this small-time gangster on the down slope, a dead-ender in an otherwise unremarkable crime syndicate, has lifted the mists surrounding the yakuza in this southern port city. In the process, it has scraped some of the glamour off the yakuza’s once-romantic image.

TETSUYA Shiroo came to the gangster’s life as a teenager. His father was a miner who had killed a man and gone to prison. Some media reports say his father killed himself there, though Nagasaki police are unable to confirm how he died. He left a wife and young son.

The son tried to go straight for a while. Shiroo sold newspapers in Nagasaki, then moved to Tokyo as a young adult to try his hand as a sushi chef. Later, after serving a prison sentence for trying to extort money from a previous Nagasaki mayor, he attempted the straight life again by taking a job at Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki shipyard.

It didn’t last. The wages were too low, and Shiroo kept getting sucked back into the gangs, says a friend of more than 20 years.

The friend, a muckraking local journalist with a long list of enemies in politics and business, will allow himself to be identified only by the pen name Rimpei Minoshima, which he is using for his book about the Ito assassination called “Nightmare in Nagasaki.”

Sitting in the den of his hillside home outside the city, he pulls page drafts from his pocket to read from his work in progress. He will lift the lid on the corruption in Nagasaki politics, he says. Show its “grotesque” side.

“Shiroo wasn’t doing business with the mayor,” the author says. “He wanted to do business with the mayor.”

The young Shiroo had joined the yakuza as a member of the Matsumoto-gumi, a gang with roots in Nagasaki that go back before World War II. By the time Shiroo reached his 50s, the gang had changed its name to Suishin-kai and he had risen to be its deputy chairman.

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The gang was powerful in Nagasaki but counted only 30 to 40 members, police say. Like other small gangs squeezed by a combination of Japan’s recession and tougher laws against organized crime, Suishin-kai affiliated itself with the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s biggest crime syndicate.

Yet Shiroo still felt the financial pressure. The drugs he had dealt as a younger gangster were off-limits under the Yamaguchi-gumi. There was still some money to be made providing protection to bars and restaurants. But there was more and more resistance to his attempts to shake down the city government for a portion of construction contracts.

Less money meant less influence.

“He was isolated within his organization,” Minoshima says, and the Suishin-kai boss demoted Shiroo from his No. 2 position to that of a mere “councilor.”

“He hated losing power,” Minoshima says. “He had irrational pride as a yakuza and didn’t like anyone looking down on him. He just wanted to get a big name to show he had to be taken seriously.”

Yet Shiroo could be sweet too, says a woman who would consent only to being described as “one of his ex-wives.”

“We would have stayed married if it had not been for that affair,” she says, sitting in a bar drinking soda water. From her purse she pulls a book of photos of herself and Shiroo in younger days. In the pictures, Shiroo beams.

They remained friends even after the split. When Shiroo’s fourth wife left him, taking their son with her, she let him stay in a house she owns on the hills above Nagasaki harbor, near a park where he liked to jog. She cooked dinner for him the two nights before the Ito assassination.

She is mystified by his act, she says. The only thing she knows for sure is that he must have been planning to kill himself after shooting the mayor.

THERE has always been a mystique surrounding the yakuza, which emerged about four centuries ago as a caste of independent, street-smart samurai in feudal Japan. As their legend grew, they became admired for having what many lauded as a tough but honorable code of conduct. The yakuza were seen as protectors of the weak, a check against excessive government power. Some credited them for Japan’s low crime rate.

All of this ignored the yakuza’s role as political fixers and rent-a-thugs for Japan’s militarists, mostly in the World War II period, and, later, in service of the governing Liberal Democratic Party.

The yakuza’s social legitimacy and political connections meant that, unlike, say, the Italian Mafia or the hard men of London’s East End, they were able to operate openly. Throughout Japan’s postwar boom, an “understanding” with police allowed them to flourish -- provided they didn’t allow internal bloodlettings to spill over onto civilian turf.

“It used to be you could visit their headquarters and they’d have wooden nameplates on the walls with the names of who’s No. 1 in the organization, who’s No. 2 and so on,” says Suganuma, the former intelligence official. “If somebody lost power, his nameplate came down.

“We used to meet openly with members. It allowed the police to know what was going on inside the organizations.”

That relationship changed after 1992, when Japan passed the Organized Crime Countermeasures law, which defined the yakuza as an “antisocial” element. The yakuza’s underdog image already had begun degenerating into something more savage, with gangsters increasingly referred to by the police and critics as boryokudan, or “the violent ones.” The sentiment was reinforced in the late 1980s by shootings in which civilians too frequently became victims of inter-gang crossfire.

By then the boryokudan had used their dominance of Japan’s postwar black market to catapult into grayer areas of legitimate business. They bought into big corporations during the dizzying expansion of the bubble era. They got even richer off Japanese real estate developers who relied on their invaluable help “encouraging” holdout property owners to sell off chunks of land, a practice known as land sharking.

The police claimed to know less about what they were up to.

“In the past it was all visible; we could tell who was controlling the projects,” Suganuma says. “Now we don’t know anything.”

Increasingly, the yakuza’s best play became siphoning money from government-financed construction projects. The gangs embedded themselves into the construction industry, commanding commissions on public works projects in return for ensuring that the job would be completed on time, without labor disruptions.

It didn’t end until the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, saddled with a massive public debt, began cutting its spending on public works. Commissions dried up. And when further laws were passed to try to crack down on the epidemic of bid rigging, it became even harder to lean on civic officials.

The latest National Police Agency report on crime, released last week, says the yakuza have recently replaced lost earnings by striking secret partnerships with companies to make money from Japanese stock markets. But the report says only a few gangs are benefiting, creating an increasing rich-poor gap in the underworld.

The squeeze has been felt deeply in places such as Nagasaki, where Shiroo’s connections in the construction business started going bankrupt. Nagasaki has only 620 full-time yakuza members, a minuscule share of the roughly 80,000 full- and part-time gangsters across the country, according to police statistics. But fights among rival gangs escalated in the last couple of years as everyone scrambled for a bigger share of a smaller pie.

In the end, it was these new economic realities that caught up with Shiroo. Raised in the era of easy money, this old-style yakuza could not adjust to new times.

“His position was being narrowed further and further until he was chased into a corner,” says Yutaka Takehana, a former aide to Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara who led an effort to clean up the vice in the Kabukicho neighborhood. “He wasn’t good at living in this cleaner world.”

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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