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In Japan, 2019 will be remembered as a year that ended twice. In addition to the Western calendar year, which ends on Dec. 31, April 30 marked the final day of year 31 of the Heisei Era, thereby bringing an end to the reign of Emperor Akihito, who had abdicated in favor of Crown Prince Naruhito. From May, Japan recalibrated its gengō (dynastic calendar) to the first year of the Reiwa Era.

In the leadup to the new emperor’s enthronement ceremony, the government followed previous custom on Oct. 18, announcing it would pardon some 550,000 petty criminals and restore some of their civil rights, such as eligibility for national licenses. This action fell short of a general amnesty or reduction in sentencing for convicts serving prison sentences.

According to Kyodo News, traffic violators accounted for 65.2 percent of those receiving pardons, and those causing death or injury in traffic accidents were 17.4 percent. Those convicted of assault or injury and theft, respectively, were 3.3 percent and 2.6 percent. Other beneficiaries of the pardon included some 430 violators of the election law.

From last year the pundits had also been carefully watching to see how the approaching dynastic change would affect the executions of convicts on death row, since generally these are not carried out close to auspicious dates.

So as many had predicted, Shoko Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, and a dozen of his high-ranking followers who had been found guilty of committing altruistic murder went to the gallows in July 2018.

Among their more notorious crimes were the 1989 murders of human rights lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and infant son, and innocent bystanders who were exposed to sarin gas during attacks in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in June 1994 and aboard the Tokyo subway system in March 1995.

Executions, on hold from the start of 2019, resumed on Aug. 2 of this year, with the hangings of two murderers in Tokyo and Fukuoka prisons. Several more may be forthcoming this month.

Another example of prolonged legal efforts, albeit unrelated to the imperial family, involved measures aimed at eradicating the Kudo-kai, a local yakuza gang in the city of Kitakyushu.

It was over 21 years ago, in February 1998, that the former head of a fishing cooperative was shot dead. Kudo-kai involvement was immediately suspected and, 16 years later, Satoru Nomura, head of the gang, and three of his confederates were arrested and charged with homicide.

Yukan Fuji (Nov. 24) ran a photo of heavy construction equipment commencing demolition of the former headquarters of the Kudo-kai.

The 1,750-square-meter lot on which the 32-year-old building stood occupied prime commercial property, being located about 2 kilometers from JR Kokura Station.

It was reportedly purchased from the gang for approximately ¥100 million, but most of the proceeds, the tabloid reported, will go to satisfy claims by the gang’s victims and related costs.

The building itself had gone unoccupied for several years and the property went into receivership after nonpayment of accrued taxes.

Kudo-kai membership is said to have declined from a peak of about 730 at the end of 2008 to some 310 at present.

“The Fukuoka Prefectural Police,” reported Yukan Fuji, “remain on the alert.”

Interestingly Shukan Shincho (Dec. 5) ran a followup to the above report that offered an instructive example of the differences readers can expect between straight news reporting and the kind of investigative reporting in which the weekly magazines excel.

First, Kitakyushu residents were not necessarily in agreement over the demolition of the gang headquarters.

“I felt relieved to see it torn down,” remarked a homemaker in her 40s. “It was scary to walk past their headquarters, so I’d always detoured around it.”

A man in his 60s, however, told the magazine: “I suppose other problems will crop up. What kind of outfit will move in and take over Kitakyushu next? I’ve been told the Chinese mafia will cut off somebody’s arm to steal his briefcase, but if they aren’t too nasty I guess they’ll be OK.”

The Kudo-kai is regarded as one of the nation’s more violent organizations. Some years ago, a raid found its members in possession of such military hardware as hand grenades and a rocket launcher, and dislodging them from their turf is requiring some extraordinary efforts by the police.

The word was that an association of retired cops — a public benefit corporation — first purchased the building from the gang, and then resold it to a private company.

“The company that bought the property was not local, but a construction company based in Fukuoka,” an inside source told the magazine. “They cooperate with the police by offering jobs to former gang members who want to go clean.”

Such efforts had been necessary because when the bidding opened on the Kudo-kai building, a company with close ties to the gang had offered a bid to buy it. So the police held back on the sale until they could find a buyer more to their liking.

According to a reporter on the police beat, “Nomura’s trial began in October of this year, but prosecutors may have been dissuaded from demanding a death sentence after the family members of the deceased agreed last year to accept ¥40 million in compensation — to come from sale of the building after costs for demolition and so on were deducted.”

Still, police aren’t taking any chances and even the contractor that demolished the building had to be hand-picked.

One problem that remains for the new owners is what to do with the land.

“They can’t build a residential apartment because of the likelihood that nostalgic gang members will want to move in,” the reporter says.

It may be a while yet, says Shukan Shincho, until this story finally plays out.

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