World News

03.23.13

Japan Finally Convicts Powerful Yakuza Boss

One of Japan’s most powerful gangsters was finally convicted to six years in prison for extortion. Jake Adelstein reports on the years-long police investigation—and what it means for the yakuza.

The second most powerful gangster in Japan, and for several years the de facto head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest mafia group (39,000 members), was sentenced to six years in prison for extortion, according to the Japanese media and police sources. The Kyoto District Court handed down the verdict on March 22. The defense is expected to appeal the sentence, which came years after an initial investigation initiated by the Kyoto Police in late 2009.

Kiyoshi Takayama, 65, chairman of the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai faction and the second in command of the Yamaguchi-gumi itself, was convicted of extorting cash totaling more than 40,000,000 yen (approximately $422,000) from a 67-year-old president of a construction industry in Kyoto under the pretext of "protection money."

Takayama has a reputation of being a cunning and ruthless leader. He is a well-known figure in the country and on the cover of numerous publications about the yakuza. He was injured in his youth, allegedly in a sword fight, which resulted in his right eye being half-closed and giving him a frightening appearance. While feared and respected by many in the underworld, his unusually antagonistic attitude toward the police gained him criticism within and outside his own group. For decades the police and the yakuza had semi-cordial relationships; cops would visit yakuza at their offices and they would casually talk to each other. The third-generation leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi once served as the Honorary Police Chief of the Day in the Kobe area in the ’60s. When yakuza were caught for a crime they committed, they would quickly confess. If there was a gang war, those who committed violent acts of retaliation in the conflict would turn themselves into the police. Under Takayama, Yamaguchi-gumi members became more adversarial toward law enforcement and would not generally allow detectives into their offices, nor cooperate with investigations, nor confess to crimes.

In Japan, while there are several laws regulating the activities of the yakuza, the groups themselves are not illegal. They maintain offices, have business cards, and run a network of front companies. There are even fan magazines and comic books published about the yakuza’s exploits.

According to this court ruling, Kiyoshi Takayama teamed up with Yoshiyuki Takayama (no relation), 56, head of the Yamaguchi-gumi Omi group based in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, to blackmail the Kyoto businessman on three separate occasions between 2005 and 2006.

The court concluded that Kiyoshi Takayama implicitly demanded the victim become a corporate associate of the gang when they dined together in October 2005. Kiyoshi Takayama allegedly told the Kyoto businessman, "I want you to be on good terms (with Yoshiyuki Takayama) and work together," while Yoshiyuki Takayama was present at the dinner. “Good terms” in the yakuza world usually means paying protection money or giving in to yakuza demands.

Part of the disputed evidence in the trial was a recording where a gang member from the Yamaguchi-gumi Omi group demanded money be paid to "Nagoya,” the name of the area where the Kodo-kai gang is based. The conclusion of the court was that “Nagoya” was a code name for Kiyoshi Takayama. The defense for Kiyoshi Takayama argued that he merely happened to be present at the dinner and had no part in demanding the protection money, and had never received any of the money collected.

“We take the runaways, the Japanese Koreans, the outcasts of Japan, those who are discriminated against, and we give them a home … We teach them discipline.”

Kiyoshi Takayama was in de facto control of the Yamaguchi-gumi after its boss Kenichi Shinoda (also known as Shinobu Tsukasa) was imprisoned in 2005, on violations of gun control laws. Shinoda was released in 2011. Upon his release, Shinoda made efforts to return discipline to the Yamaguchi-gumi and abide by the unspoken social contract the yakuza traditionally followed in Japan. In an interview with Sankei newspaper in October the same year, he defended the role of the Yamaguchi-gumi saying, “We take the runaways, the Japanese Koreans, the outcasts of Japan, those who are discriminated against, and we give them a home ... We teach them discipline. We teach them the humanitarian way (ninkyodo) and not to cause trouble to civilians. Keeping the Yamaguchi-gumi together prevents violent gangs from taking over the streets.” The argument Shinoda makes is one that some Japanese people still agree with: the only thing worse than organized crime is disorganized crime: robbery, theft, muggings, and other street crime.

Kiyoshi Takayama’s bail was set at a record high of 1.5 billion yen during his trial. Takayama was known for his antagonistic polices toward the authorities and allegedly authorizing the use of private detectives by the Kodo-kai to gather information, including phone records, on police, lawyers, activists, and other enemies of the groups. This information was then later used to threaten detectives and their families, according to police sources. This did not sit well with the cops.

By September 2009, the acting head of Japan’s National Police Agency announced that all the police in Japan needed to focus on destroying the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai—not the entire Yamaguchi-gumi per se, but specifically the Kodo-kai faction. At its peak, the Kodo-kai had 4,000 members, making one out of every 10 Yamaguchi-gumi members a Kodo-kai soldier. It is now below 2,000 members, according to police sources.

Japanese government sources say the Kyoto Police investigation into Kiyoshi Takayama was aided by information from the local Kyoto mafia, the Aizukotetsu-kai, one of the oldest yakuza groups in Japan. It was established in Kyoto in the 1860s according to the yakuza history book Ninkyojuku. Yoshiyuki Takayama, who is still on trial for extortion charges, is coincidentally the son of the fourth-generation leader of the Aizukotetsu-kai.

A Kyoto police officer, speaking on background said, “Kiyoshi Takayama and the Yamaguchi-gumi made a mistake by trying to take over Kyoto. They weren’t welcome by the local yakuza, or local business owners, or us. We were given good leads on the case by people on all levels of Kyoto society and that’s all I can say.”