Do you ever get the feeling that you’re trapped in Harold Ramis’ 1993 movie “Groundhog Day,” except that you’re an investigative journalist, not a weatherman, and the nemesis that keeps popping up isn’t a rodent but a crime syndicate boss? Maybe it’s just me.
On Dec. 9, the U.S. Treasury Department put Tadamasa Goto, former head of the Goto-gumi — an affiliate of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the country’s largest yakuza syndicate — on its list of individuals and organizations that are subject to financial sanctions.
The last individual to receive the same treatment was Kodo-kai chief Teruaki Takeuchi, who was targeted in April. Little more than four months later, a Kobe-based affiliate split from the Yamaguchi-gumi, triggering fears of a turf war between the rival factions.
The new group, Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, is headed by Kunio Inoue, but the U.S. appears to be targeting Goto instead of him. But why now? Hadn’t Goto retired from the syndicate in 2008 and become a Buddhist priest?
According to the Treasury Department, Goto began working for the Inagawa-kai syndicate before switching sides and becoming a key player in the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate. He is believed to have set up a network of front companies for the syndicate before he was expelled in 2008. Nevertheless, the Treasury Department still considers Goto to be an influential criminal figure who is now living in Cambodia laundering money.
Goto is arguably one of the most notorious crime bosses that has ever operated in Japan. In 1992, director Juzo Itami portrayed yakuza members as common thugs in “Minbo no Onna,” or “Minbo: the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion,” telling reporters in interviews that he “wanted to show the public that you can fight gangsters and win.” Angered by the yakuza’s portrayal in the film, members of the Goto-gumi syndicate attacked Itami outside his home six days after the movie opened. The director was beaten and had his face slashed.
In his 2010 autobiography, “Habakarinagara,” Goto denies any involvement in the attack. However, he says, Itami “deserved it — he made the yakuza look stupid.”
Goto was eventually diagnosed with liver cancer but struck a deal with the FBI in 2001: He would trade information on his yakuza associates in exchange for a visa to the United States. He’d already arranged to receive a liver transplant at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center. Goto received his new liver but coughed up little useful information. I broke the transplant scandal in 2008 in The Washington Post and worked with the Los Angeles Times on a few follow-up stories.
The Yamaguchi-gumi expelled Goto in 2008 after he was accused of attempting to overthrow the leadership of the syndicate with 10 other members, writes Katsumi Kimura in “Goodbye Yamaguchi-gumi.” The Nishi Nihon newspaper on Sept. 7 went further, arguing that the failed coup was behind this year’s split. The newspaper suggested that Inoue had originally backed the coup, while others have claimed that Goto bankrolled the rebel faction this year. Goto and Inoue certainly appear to be close allies. These allegations are arguably sufficient grounds for the U.S. to slap financial sanctions on Goto and, subsequently, send a warning to the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi as well.
In his biography, Goto called my writing “unpleasant.” I suppose it was also an “unpleasant” experience for real-estate agent Kazuo Nozaki to be stabbed to death in April 2006. Then again, Nozaki was embroiled in a legal dispute with a Goto-gumi front company over the property rights to a building in Tokyo.
The Metropolitan Police Department has managed to convict several members of the Goto-gumi syndicate for the murder but criminal charges have never been filed against Goto himself.
In August 2012, Nozaki’s family sued Goto for the real-estate agent’s wrongful death, arguing that Goto was liable as an employer of the killers. According to Chunichi Shimbun, the case was settled out of court with a payment of $1.4 million to the family of the victim. Goto, meanwhile, expressed his condolences. As I’ve written before, it appears that crime does indeed pay in Japan — it may just cost you a bit more to stay out of jail.
Another new year has begun but it feels like little has changed. The yakuza still operate in the open. Goto is back in business and, by all accounts, doing well as an esteemed guest of the Cambodian government. I’m struggling to make a living, although I’m no longer under police protection. You could say I’m not feeling particularly lucky.
So, this year, I’m going to go Meiji Shrine and write out a simple votive tablet: “May my readers, friends and loved ones all be blessed, live well and prosper. May my enemies and 99 percent of yakuza gangsters repent their evil ways and if not, go to jail.”
Otherwise, it’s going to be another dark year in the land of the rising sun.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.