• Kyodo

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The head of Yamaguchi-gumi, the nation’s largest crime syndicate, was slapped with a court order Thursday to pay damages to the family of a police sergeant gunned down by members of an affiliate gangster group in 1995.

The Osaka High Court changed a ruling handed down by a lower court, which ordered the two gangsters actually involved in the shooting and their immediate superior to pay a total of some 80 million yen in compensation.

Presiding Judge Atsushi Hayashi said Yamaguchi-gumi leader Yoshinori Watanabe should also be among those making the payment owing to his responsibility for hiring those who carried out the crime.

It is the first time a court has ordered the top leader of a gangster organization to pay damages as part of his responsibility as an employer. Legal experts said it could have a major impact on similar lawsuits and serve as an impetus to control intergang fighting.

“Intergang fighting is closely linked to Watanabe’s business of maintaining and expanding his syndicate, and there was a working supervisory relationship between Watanabe and the actual shooters,” the judge said.

Lawyers representing Watanabe plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.

They said the ruling “has several grave mistakes in the recognition of facts and a basic misunderstanding of the interpretation of employer responsibility.”

According to the ruling, 44-year-old Sgt. Tsuyoshi Fujitake was shot in the chest by two gang members in the predawn hours of Aug. 25, 1995, while he was on patrol in front of the office of the Yamahiro-gumi gangster group in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto.

About five hours prior to the incident, members of the Yamashita-gumi, a third-tier affiliate of the Yamaguchi-gumi, had shot and seriously wounded the leader of the Yamahiro-gumi following an argument.

The two gangsters who shot Fujitake admitted during their criminal trial that they had shot the officer by mistake, thinking he was a member of the Yamahiro-gumi. They were sentenced to prison terms of 18 years and seven years.

Fujitake’s family had filed a damages suit seeking a total of roughly 164 million yen from the gangsters, including the Yamaguchi-gumi leader, and had appealed the Kyoto District Court ruling in which Watanabe was exempt.

The district court ruled that while Shigeru Yamashita, the head of Yamashita-gumi, could be held jointly accountable for the criminal acts of his subordinates, Watanabe could not be held legally responsible for intergang fighting caused by reasons unique to those individual groups.

On Thursday, however, Judge Hayashi described the Yamaguchi-gumi’s internal communication system as one in which “by its internal code, the intentions of Watanabe and other top leaders were fully transmitted to subordinate organizations and even intergang fights had to be reported to superiors.”

Yoshiki Takeshita, the lawyer who headed the plaintiffs’ legal team, described the ruling as “groundbreaking.” He said it was a long legal battle — eight years since the actual shooting and five years since the damages suit was filed.

“The length of time that passed shows both the difficulties of the trial and the scale of the determination of the (officer’s) family,” he said.

National Police Agency chief Hidehiko Sato said later Thursday that he was elated at the news of the ruling.

“I want to express by respect to both the family of the dead officer and the plaintiffs’ legal team,” he told a regular news conference.

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