National / Crime & Legal

Fukuoka aimed for the top in taking down Kudokai yakuza group

Involving a cast of thousands, the large-scale 2014 arrest shook the foundations of organized crime

KYODO

A key strategy to eradicate an organized crime group — typically a tight pyramid organization — is cracking down on the top figures and thereby weakening the group.

Looking back, that was exactly what Fukuoka Prefectural Police was aiming for — arrest senior members of the Kitakyushu-based Kudokai, the only crime syndicate Fukuoka designated as such in 2012 to keep them on a tight leash.

The prefectural police launched an operation in September 2014, leading to the arrests of the group’s leader, Satoru Nomura, now 73, who was later convicted of ordering murder and attempted murder, among other charges, along with other executives.

Nomura is also on trial for tax evasion charges, for which the Fukuoka High Court sentenced him to three years in prison and an ¥80 million fine. He has since appealed to the Supreme Court.

But before it all went to trial, the prefectural police had built an intricate investigation plan using every legal option ahead of the operation on Sept. 11, 2014, meticulously gathering information and engaging in information warfare to get ahead of the game.

And that day was a long day for many investigators in the Fukuoka Prefectural Police.

At 5 a.m., Hirofumi Ichise, 60, a senior investigator in charge of organized crime, got a call from an officer in the field at a situation room at Kokurakita police station, telling him that Nomura had been questioned by a police officer who was unaware of the ongoing operation.

“What? You must be kidding me,’’ he replied.

About 250 police officers and riot police officers were waiting to raid the homes of the top two leaders, Nomura and Fumio Tanoue, 63, the No. 2 man. Apparently one of the police officers at a local police box stopped his car around 4:30 a.m. for questioning. Nomura, in his pajamas, was in the back seat while the driver, a Kudokai senior member, told police that he was rushing to a hospital with an acquaintance suffering from a stomach ache and drove off.

The investigative team feared that the police questioning may have given away the operation, causing Nomura to flee. Just before that, at around 4:20 a.m., Kudokai members started coming and going at Nomura’s house.

Police started raiding the homes at 6:46 a.m., but Nomura was nowhere to be found. Just then, a police officer reported over the radio that they had arrested Nomura.

“Arrested, 7:21 a.m. We’ll be taking him in to the Kokurakita police station,” the officer said.

Oddly enough, Nomura came back to his home after the police questioning. Meanwhile, Tanoue fled, which was a failure for many investigators. But the chief of the Fukuoka Prefectural Police was upbeat nonetheless.

“You guys scored a perfect 100 points! If you arrested the top leader, it’s a total success,’’ said Masato Higuchi, 62.

The arrest essentially put an end to the many heinous crimes Kudokai had been suspected of being involved in since the late 1990s. In February 1998, a former fisheries cooperative leader was shot to death for apparently antagonizing Kudokai over a public works project. The incident was followed by multiple shootings and violent attacks. In August 2003, a hand grenade was thrown into a high-end hostess club.

The list goes on. In April 2012, a former police executive was critically injured after being shot. Staffers at restaurants that had posted signs saying “organized crime members not allowed” were attacked, causing the prefectural police to designate Kudokai as a group to keep under strict monitoring in December 2012. The move allowed the police to arrest its members more easily, including for following a rival organized crime member.

In January 2013, a female nurse who works at a hospital where Nomura used to be treated as an outpatient was slashed with a knife.

Fukuoka Prefectural Police chief Masato Higuchi speaks at a news conference after arresting Kudokai leader Satoru Nomura on Sept. 11, 2014, at Kokurakita Police Station. | KYODO
Fukuoka Prefectural Police chief Masato Higuchi speaks at a news conference after arresting Kudokai leader Satoru Nomura on Sept. 11, 2014, at Kokurakita Police Station. | KYODO

To lead the Kudokai operation, the National Police Agency assigned Higuchi, appointing him to head the Fukuoka Prefectural Police in June 2013.

“A draw would not be acceptable for the Kudokai operation. I will bear fruit in a way recognizable for citizens,” Higuchi told the prefectural assembly in December 2013 in a passionate 12-minute speech.

With organized crime groups, simply arresting a rank-and-file member will not solve the problem. Therefore, arresting the top figures of Kudokai was Higuchi’s mission.

Eight days after his speech, however, someone fatally shot the younger brother of the former fisheries cooperative chief murdered in 1998. In the 1998 case, the assassin was convicted, but Tanoue, the Kudokai chairman suspected of orchestrating the incident, got off the hook.

In trial documents for the 1998 murder case, however, there were testimonies that showed the involvement of Nomura and other top figures of the group.

Since they were hearsay, it was initially not introduced as evidence, as stipulated in the Criminal Procedure Law. But since most of those who had testified back then had since died, there was a possibility that those testimonies could be introduced as evidence after all.

“This may be a breakthrough,” one of the senior investigators said.

Other moves worked to their advantage. In January 2014, the Osaka High Court convicted an executive of an organized crime group for conspiring to murder one of its rank-and-file members.

Fukuoka investigators started applying it as precedent for their unresolved cases involving Kudokai.

It was in the summer of that year that Higuchi decided to go ahead with the Kudokai operation, aiming to arrest the top figures in the 1998 murder case and the slashing of the female nurse.

Higuchi and other investigators came up with various tactics and strategies, raiding the homes of Nomura and other suspects in the group many times.

They were aiming to shake up the organization by sending a message that they know that top members of the group are involved. At the same time, the numerous raids gave them the impression that arrests won’t be made simply through raids.

On the day of Sept. 11, 2014, Nomura was arrested after he was questioned by police and went back home, believing he probably won’t be arrested.

There were 3,800 investigators involved in the entire operation. In the second wave of the operation, investigators arrested all top three figures as well as key rank-and-file members.

At a meeting room in Kokurakita police station, Higuchi told reporters after they arrested Nomura: “We arrested the top figure on a charge of suspected murder.”

It is extremely rare for a prefectural police chief to comment on individual cases, but Higuchi was trying to show his determination to the public. Two days later, Tanoue was arrested.

Fast forward five years, and the two top figures have claimed their innocence during trial hearings and the rulings have yet to be handed down. The Kudokai operation is still ongoing.

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