• Kyodo


Yamamoto Chogoro (1820-1893), popularly known as Shimizu Jirocho, is commonly regarded as a Robin Hood figure who helped the weak by crushing the strong as a yakuza chieftain in the twilight years of the Edo Period (1603-1867).

His successors, however, tarnished that image and now locals are distancing themselves from the group.

Jirocho lived in what is now the city of Shizuoka, where he was known as the biggest boss in the Tokaido, or Eastern Sea Circuit. He toured the region as a gambler but devoted his energies to the creation of Shimizu port and English education in the closing days of his life.

His adherents followed his wishes in trying not to bother the local community. But gamblers and thugs increased after World War II, sparking conflicts that dragged in ordinary residents.

Police designated the group that succeeded the yakuza “family” originally led by Jirocho as part of the underworld. Kingo Tanabe, fifth-generation Shimizu family leader, dissolved the group in 1961. Apologizing that the group had attained mob syndicate status, he declared, “I am very sorry to Jirocho.”

He wrote in a book, “At the very least, I don’t want to hand the (Shimizu ‘family’) crest over to a gangster organization that frightens decent people.”

Locals thus wondered why he later transferred the emblem to Yasuo Takagi, head of the Mio-gumi gang who was arrested in 2003 on suspicion of engaging in illegal loan-sharking. Takagi’s group succeeded the Shimizu family last Feb. 28.

Takagi, 59, headed the Goryo-kai, the Mio-gumi’s predecessor, at the time of his arrest. Police suspected he was involved in laundering ¥2.6 billion and searched the offices of the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, the nation’s largest underworld syndicate.

He was said to have expanded his loan-shark operations in the Kanto region and, backed by his abundant financial resources, became an immediate Yamaguchi-gumi recruit.

A tourist association in Shizuoka has removed souvenirs bearing the name “Shimizu Family” from the home where Jirocho was born and other sites so that people will not think they had anything to do with today’s underworld.

Residents say the city came to life after a television drama on Jirocho was broadcast in 2006. But the transfer of the “family” crest, they added, threw cold water on the city.

Tanabe, the former holder of the Shimizu emblem, has declined to reveal his true motive for passing it on to Takagi’s syndicate, but tens of millions of yen were reported to have changed hands, according to sources.

They said he had practically no assets when he dissolved his group, adding that his chronic illness had become worse in recent years and he was hard up for money.

A Shizuoka Prefectural Police investigator said the Mio-gumi needed what he described as Jirocho’s “gold-lettered signboard.”

“An upscale label for the name of a yakuza group,” he said, “is a lifeline for a gangster organization. The Mio-gumi probably zeroed in on the widely known Shimizu ‘family’ to recover from the loss it suffered in the loan-shark incident.”

A store owner in the shopping mall on the same road as the house in which Jirocho was born said: “Jirocho was not involved in the mob. We will only tell about his great deeds.”

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