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Japan yakuza boss sentenced to death for ordering murder

Landmark ruling comes after crime syndicate's members attacked civilians

Satoru Nomura, center left, and Fumio Tanoue, to Nomura's right, with Fukuoka Prefectural Police investigators amid a raid of a Kudo-kai affiliate. (Kokurakita Ward, Kitakyushu, April 2010)   © Kyodo

The Fukuoka District Court on Wednesday sentenced 74-year-old organized crime boss Satoru Nomura, the head of the Kudo-kai yakuza group, to death for conspiring to commit murder and other crimes, another in a string of civil case decisions that apply "employer's responsibility" to top gang leaders, strengthening Japan's legal push against crime syndicates.

The decision is also noteworthy in that Judge Ben Adachi lacked direct evidence but accepted the credibility of testimony and concluded Nomura was a ringleader who used organizational power.

Nomura and his No. 2, 65-year-old Fumio Tanoue, were charged with murder and for violating laws that make it illegal for members of a crime group to coordinate murder attempts. The court sentenced Nomura to death and Tanoue to life in prison after finding the defendants were involved in four incidents: the shooting death of a former head of a fishing cooperative in 1998, the shooting of a former Fukuoka police inspector in 2012, the assault of a nurse in 2013 and the assault of a dentist in 2014.

This is believed to be the first death sentence for the sitting head of a designated criminal group. "The police conducted a thorough investigation and laid out the involvement of the top leaders," a senior prosecutor involved in the trial said. "This will set a good precedent for future investigations of an organized criminal group."

When the verdict was read, Nomura, who had been relatively calm until then, suddenly raised his voice and threatened the judge. "Hey you, you are going to regret this for the rest of your life," he shouted.

The victims in the four incidents were ordinary citizens. Because of its brutality, the Kudo-kai is the only gang in Japan to be officially labeled as a "specified dangerous designated criminal group." In 2003, gang members threw a hand grenade into a club in the city of Kitakyushu, seriously injuring 11 employees. It has also targeted general companies, shooting employees of construction groups Obayashi in 2008 and Shimizu in 2011.

The Fukuoka Prefectural Police launched "Operation Summit" to stamp out the group. In September 2014, Nomura was arrested on suspicion of murder, followed by Tanoue and others. Nomura was also the first in Japan to be charged with income tax violations for treating the organization's income, which was paid to Kudo-kai by its lower organizations, as his own income. In February, he was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 80 million yen ($728,600) for evading about 320 million yen in taxes.

The group has been whittled down. The prefectural police, which called on gang members to quit, later helped them find employment. The number of gang members, including associates, at the end of 2020 was a record low of 430, down more than 60% from the peak of 1,210 at the end of 2008. In February 2020, the group's head office in Kitakyushu was dismantled, and the site was purchased by a private business in Fukuoka Prefecture.

The gang's growing weakness also affected the trial. Nomura and Tanoue denied their involvement in the incidents, and there was no direct evidence of them providing instructions or otherwise being involved. However, former gang members and others appeared as witnesses for the prosecution. Many of them had previously refused to testify for fear of reprisals.

Using the testimony of 91 witnesses, the prosecution demonstrated the organization's viciousness, its thorough top-down structure, its chain of command. By accumulating indirect evidence, the prosecution also showed Nomura's motives, including personal grudges against the victims and what he stood to gain.

The verdict accepted the credibility of the testimony given. It noted that Nomura "was involved as a ringleader, and there were no extenuating circumstances. ... The shooting incident alone should warrant the maximum penalty. However, accounting for the other three cases, the seriousness and maliciousness of these crimes as an organized activity become even more pronounced, and the maximum penalty becomes even more necessary."

The court concluded that the sentence should be more severe than the life imprisonment of the person who actually carried out the shooting.

Judges at the Fukuoka District Court on August 24. The court sentenced the head of the Kudo-kai yakuza gang to death.   © Kyodo

This is not the first time the head of an organization was found to be an accomplice in a case despite not being directly involved in executing it.

In 1995 the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult released sarin in the Tokyo subway system. Fourteen people would die from the toxic gas. Later, Aum Shinrikyo leader Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, was charged with murder, though he claimed his disciples had acted on their own. In 2004 the Tokyo District Court accepted his followers' testimony that they had received instructions, and Asahara was sentenced to death. He was 63 at the time of his execution.

The Organized Crime Punishment Act, under which Nomura and Tanoue were convicted for the three incidents from 2012 to 2014, was enacted in 2000, in the wake of the subway gas attack and other Aum Shinrikyo crimes. Under the act, the penalty for coordinated murder is more severe than that for murder under regular criminal law. "The degree of organization of the gang was the most important factor in fact-finding and sentencing decisions," said Takahiro Eto, a professor of criminal law at Momoyama Gakuin University. "This is a symbolic decision, as the entirety of society is becoming less forgiving of organized crime."

Japan's judiciary is indeed approaching organized crime by gangs more strictly.

In 2014, the Osaka High Court reversed a lower court acquittal of a senior member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, another crime syndicate, because the prosecution could not prove his involvement in a murder. The High Court said it was "unreasonable not to recognize his complicity."

The pursuit of gang leaders by holding them accountable for acts carried out by their subordinates is a growing trend in civil cases. A 2008 amendment to Japan's anti-organized crime law clearly states that top leaders have an "employer's responsibility" that makes them liable for damages if members of designated criminal groups use the power of the organization to harm the bodies or property of others.

In 2019, the Mito District Court found top members of the Sumiyoshi-kai responsible in a fraud case involving group members and ordered them to pay compensation. The verdict was finalized, and the Sumiyoshi-kai paid 5 million yen to the plaintiff in April this year.

Gangs are being pressed by criminal and civil laws. According to the National Police Agency, there were 25,900 members and associate members of organized crime groups at the end of 2020. The number is down by about 70% from 2010.

However, some worry that cracking down harder could drive gangs underground and lead to more hangure criminal elements that are not associated with any organization.

"It is important that the police, financial authorities and private financial institutions work together to strengthen anti-money laundering measures that track and analyze the flow of criminal proceeds," said Tetsuya Ohno, a lawyer who specializes in gangs and money laundering measures. "That will clarify the actual conditions of criminal organizations."

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