On the 18th of February 1998, 70 year old Kunihiro Kajiwara was leaving a nightclub in the city of Kitakyushu when he was accosted by two men. Kajiwara was the head of a local fishery in the area and had imprudently opposed the local Yakuza clans bid to have a marine pier constructed from which they would of course benefit. He was shot by his attackers four times and left dying in a pool of blood on the streets of the Japanese city. Kajiwara was yet another victim of the most vicious clan in the entire Yakuza, the Kudo-kai of Kyushu. Four years later two low-ranking mobsters were convicted of the crime but Japanese police knew that someone higher up must have given the order. In September of this year the two top leaders of the criminal organisation were arrested for the Kajiwara murder, 67 year old Satoru Nomura and his 58 year old deputy Fumio Tanoue.
The city of Kitakyushu is located in the northern part of Kyushu, Japan’s westernmost island which is infested with Yakuza and is home to some of its most quarrelsome clans. The post-industrial city has around one million inhabitants and used to be an important steel town although that industry is now declining in the region. It also hosts a large and bustling port which is extremely important to the city’s economic life. In the working class district of Kokurakita-ku, located in the heart of the city, is a large four-story fortress like building that is the headquarters of the Kudo-kai yakuza organisation, considered to be Japan’s most violent and dangerous criminal clan. The building is surrounded by a large walls topped with barbed wire and the compound is dotted with security cameras, it is an intimidating place and this of course is the intention. Japan must be unique in that gangsters actually have official headquarters and hand out business cards. Up until recently the Yakuza were semi-legal organisations but things are now beginning to change on that front.
The Yakuza have a rich history in Japan going back centuries and are estimated to have anything from between 60,000 and 90,000 members nationwide. The most powerful and well-known groups are the Yamaguchi-gumi, originally from the port city of Kobe, and the Sumiyoshi-kai, based in the capital Tokyo. The Kudo-kai have been active in Kyushu since before the Second World War, the clan was founded by Genji Kudo, the first Oyabun (boss or crime lord) of the criminal group. Today the clan is estimated to have between 600 and 900 members and associates. Over the years the Kudo-kai have fought, allied, merged and destroyed other yakuza clans. They lead an alliance of around 5 other Kyushu-based yakuza groups in the region and are extremely hostile to the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest Yakuza organisation.
The Kudo-kai are involved in classic mafia-style patterns of racketeering such as extortion, gambling, loan-sharking, drug-trafficking and the infiltration of public works contracts. The clan is suspected of involvement in the lucrative methamphetamine and MDMA trade, drugs that are popular with Japanese youths. The Kudo-kai imposes extensive protection rackets on their territory. Bars are taxed a monthly payment of anything between $100 and $1,000 a month. Construction companies are expected to kick back a percentage of their profits to the clan for the right to operate. Anyone who opposes their will usually see themselves at the wrong end of machete or their business blown up with a hand-grenade. Construction company presidents have been killed in the past for refusing to kick back a percentage to the Kudo-kai.
Japan has long been a place that has accepted and tolerated Yakuza clans as part of the fabric of national life. They were even allowed to mediate in disputes between private citizens, acting as a sort of unofficial court. The hierarchical and orderly criminal societies mirrored the rigidity of Japanese life and many perceived them to be bringing order to an otherwise chaotic underworld. Yakuza have posed as respectable and honest citizens who are providing a service to the people. However the Kudo-kai have never the most subtle in their approach and rightfully earned themselves a reputation as a brutal and extremely violent organisation who will stop at nothing to impose their authority.
The general rule within the Yakuza is too avoid attacking civilians and police, murdering them is supposed to be a big no-no, but the Kudo-kai have no such scruples. Victims of the clan include current Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, whose home was attacked by Kudo-kai members wielding Molotov cocktails after he had fallen afoul of the clan. Luckily for him he wasn’t injured in the attack. Diligent police officers and investigators have been gunned down for being too honest and effective in their attempts to bring down the criminal clan. The Kudo-kai even launched a hand-grenade attack on the local Chinese consulate after a falling out with Chinese gangsters operating in the area.
In 2012, Japan passed tough new laws against organised crime which ended the semi-legal status of the Yakuza and allowed the police to go after the crime bosses and their empires. The Kudo-kai had already been targeted by the local authorities in previous years who were fed up with the daily stabbings, shootings and grenade attacks. Gang war in the region had also intensified with the Kudo-kai battling constantly with their gangland rivals. The Japanese government designated the Kudo-kai as a “dangerous” group which allowed the police to be particularly vigorous in their attempts to bring down the Yakuza clan, they were the first group to be classified as such under the new laws. But the Kudo-kai being what they are fought back in the only way they knew how, through extreme violence.
Death threats were made to the Kitakyushu mayor and his family after he voiced his support for the tough new stand against the Kudo-kai. Businesses that allowed the police to put up signs saying no Yakuza were allowed inside the establishment were fire-bombed. Stabbings, slashings and shootings of ordinary civilians spiked in the city as the clan looked to intimidate the authorities into backing down. But the last two years have been a real turning point, the era of impunity looks to be over for good. The American government has also supported their Japanese ally’s efforts against the Kudo-kai clan by designating it as a transnational organised crime threat and freezing its global assets. It also took measures against the clan’s leadership that hurt them financially.
The arrest of the clan’s top two leaders is unprecedented in the history of the clan and the police must be hoping that a mortal blow had been struck against this utterly ruthless criminal organisation. Hundreds of police were involved in the arrests and to maintain order after the two were safely behind bars. The trial of leaders Satoru Nomura and Fumio Tanoue will take place next year and although conviction is not guaranteed it is believed that the police have a secret recording of the pair boasting about the murder. If the two leaders are convicted then perhaps the ordinary citizens of Kitakyushu can look forward to a brighter future in this benighted corner of Japan. However criminal organisations, including the Yakuza, have displayed an extraordinary capacity for regenerating and rebuilding in the face of adversity. The police must continue the fight against the Kudo-kai if they wish to see their city rid of the corruption of the Yakuza once and for all.