National / Media | DARK SIDE OF THE RISING SUN

In Japan, a high-profile former gangster struggles to go straight

by Jake Adelstein

Contributing Writer

Everyone loves a tale of redemption. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to be one of them. In a previous column, I introduced a man who had gone from being a greedy, violent, self-centered boss of an organized crime syndicate to become a compassionate male nurse.

It’s rare for a gangster to go straight, with many finding it a challenge to return to ordinary life in society even if they wanted to.

On March 6, Yoshio Ishige, a former boss of a crime syndicate who was better known as Shinji Ishihara, passed away. He was 79.

Most people who knew Ishihara called him “Yomawari Kumicho.”

In Japanese, “yomawari” is a term used to describe someone patrolling the streets or making the rounds at night. It’s commonly used in conversation among reporters, gangsters, police officers and people in the adult entertainment industry. “Kumicho,” on the other hand, is short-hand for “boss.”

True to his nickname, Ishihara could regularly be seen walking the streets at night and offering advice to a wide variety of young men and women in the hope that he could steer them away from the mistakes he himself had once made. He was an imposing figure: Tall, bald and hefty, he commanded a booming voice.

“After getting out of prison, I wanted to put my crimes behind me and be useful to the world,” Ishihara once told me. “So I decided to devote the rest of my life to helping out juvenile delinquents.”

Ishihara told me that he had spent nearly 20 years in prison after being involved in a murder.

Ishihara wrote books under a pen name and someone had even made a comic strip version of his life. He wrote columns for magazines and, when everything was good, he’d visit clubs in Akasaka and Ginza, where he was, according to one hostess, “a very generous customer.”

In early March, Ishihara allegedly stabbed a man in what may have been an attempted robbery and tried to flee the scene by jumping into the Sumida River, according to reports in domestic media. Police recovered his body on the same day and told reporters he had drowned.

He had reportedly been telling friends that he wanted to die and, according to an article in Friday magazine, he also believed that someone was trying to kill him, showing traces of paranoia. His death was ultimately ruled a suicide.

That, however, isn’t the end of the story.

On Oct. 26, Kiyomi Kimura, 71, was found strangled to death in a hotel and sauna. His valuables were missing, including a watch worth an estimated $10,000.

Police later tracked down video footage of a man who resembled Ishihara trying to sell a watch of the same make to a second-hand store in Taito Ward. They also obtained DNA from Ishihara’s personal belongings that identified his bloodstains found on the clothes of the victim.

On April 5, the Metropolitan Police Department posthumously sent papers to the prosecutor’s office, charging Ishihara with robbery ending in murder, a death penalty offense.

To the best of my knowledge, prosecutors have never indicted a dead man before but their case appears solid.

The media outlets in Japan that paraded Ishihara in front of their cameras as a shining example of how a gangster can rejoin society after serving time in prison must be privately fuming at this development.

Indeed, Ishihara’s unfortunate fall from grace suggests that once you’re a gangster, you’re always a gangster. There may be exceptions, of course, but it’s obviously tough to go straight.

Many find themselves struggling to pay the bills as they can’t hold down a full-time job, forcing gangsters to revert to doing what they do best — use violence to procure money.

At the end of the day, that’s what being a gangster is all about.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.