“I thought I’d get a fair decision. This is completely unfair. The whole thing was based on presumption. You will regret this for the rest of your life.”

Satoru Nomura, 74, thusly harangued Fukuoka District Court presiding Judge Ben Adachi on Aug. 24, after receiving the death sentence for his involvement in the February 1998 murder by shooting of Kunihiro Kajiwara, a 70-year-old former fishermen’s union leader in the city of Kitakyushu.

Nomura, the fifth-generation head of the Kitakyushu-based Kudo-kai syndicate, had also been held charged on three other counts of attempted murder: the shooting of a retired policeman in 2012, the stabbing of a nurse in 2013 and the stabbing of a dentist, a relative of the late union leader Kajiwara, in 2014.

At the same trial, Nomura’s second in command, Fumio Tanoue, 65, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Despite the violent and occasionally homicidal history of Japan’s yakuza over the previous seven decades, the sentencing of a gang head to death was unprecedented. It was made possible through revisions in the anti-organized crime law that made the heads of gangs legally culpable for felonies committed by their underlings.

For its November issue, Jitsuwa Bunka Taboo magazine sent a reporter to the Kudo-kai’s home turf of Kitakyushu.

“What makes the Kudo-kai so frightening is its propensity toward violence against ordinary citizens,” relates the former operator of a snack business. “On the day we opened in 2002, two toughs pranced in and demanded I pay protection. I tried to reason with them, saying ‘But today’s only our first day.’ They smashed up some bottles of scotch and left, saying ‘We’ll be back.’

“The same night, someone fired a shot through a window. I reported it to the police, but no arrests were made. A neighbor told me it was probably the Kudo-kai and advised me to pay up.”

After a year of intimidation, the snack operator closed up shop and left the area.

The Kudo-kai’s propensity for violence can possibly be attributed to the rough-and-tumble nature of Kitakyushu itself. The second-largest metropolitan area in Kyushu, it was formed in 1963 by the merger of five municipalities: Kokura, Moji, Tobata, Wakamatsu and Yahata. Due to the geographic proximity to the Korean Peninsula and the main island of Honshu, the area attracted industrialists and workers to nearby mines, factories and seaports, including Korean laborers forcibly brought to Japan during the war and their descendants.

Unfortunately the city’s no-holds-barred development, the magazine writes, resulted in creation of a city “deficient in human relationships.”

Under Nomura’s leadership, the Kudo-kai acquired an unmatched reputation for violence that stood out from other mobs. A 2011 police raid on a gang hideout in Fukuoka netted a stash of weaponry that reportedly included handguns with silencers, and such military-grade weapons as an Israeli Uzi submachine gun, American M4 carbine and Russian-made anti-tank rocket launcher.

“Four Kyushu gangs in Fukuoka and Kumamoto, including the Kudo-kai, joined forces to resist the incursion by a larger gang from Honshu, the Yamaguchi-gumi,” a retired cop who formerly dealt with organized crime is quoted as saying.

Perhaps because the Aug. 24 court decision was immediately appealed, the media’s response has been surprisingly restrained. In his weekly column in Nikkan Gendai (Sept. 7), author Atsushi Mizoguchi, one of the top authorities on the yakuza, went so far as to denounce the sentence.

While not exactly defending the Kudo-kai, Mizoguchi pointed out discontinuance orders by courts involving the gang numbered 13 in 2009, 16 in 2010, 10 in 2011 and 17 in the first half of 2012 — fewer than orders issued to other gangs in the country.

Mizoguchi conveyed his clear displeasure over Nomura’s death sentence. “The judge has endorsed the ruling, based on statements that the prosecutor repeatedly inferred from the situation without solid evidence,” he wrote. “Just because the person being tried is the boss, is it permissible to mete out capital punishment with no proof except circumstantial evidence? If this practice is ever applied to ordinary citizens, there’s no doubt it will cast a pall of darkness on society.”

The Weekly Asahi Geino reported in its Sept. 9 edition that the Fukuoka court ruling has set off a furious reaction among heads of Japan’s crime syndicates.

“It’s unthinkable for the state to take a person’s life based on inference,” a Kansai-based gang head blurted angrily. “If this decision is not overturned by a higher court, then anyone, even non-yakuza, might suffer for it.”

Another gang head noted that the precedent set by the court against yakuza could just as easily be applied to the shady dealings conducted by politicians.

“When a politician’s secretary acts as a bagman for receiving money, they won’t be able to claim ignorance of the transaction,” he said. “So even if yakuza are forcibly driven out of existence, that’s not going to eliminate corruption from Japanese society.”

An attorney advised Jitsuwa Bunka Taboo that Nomura’s courtroom remarks were not to be taken lightly.

“They were directed to the judge, but also towards members of his gang,” he said. “They’ll make inferences and judging from their previous behavior, there’s ample possibility that they’ll go after the judge, perhaps by flinging a hand grenade at his home or whatever. They may also take out their anger on ordinary citizens or city authorities.”

“The Kudo-kai are capable of anything,” the attorney warned. “The police will have to give the judge protection, and until Nomura’s appeals are exhausted, perhaps by the Supreme Court, we can expect prolonged battles with the Kudo-kai.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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