nOodle chef Takashi Nakamoto moves so deftly that he simmers, strains, and arranges his signature plates of udon that it’s easy to overlook a brutal reminder of his former life: his missing left pinky.
Over three decades, Nakamoto rose through the ranks of the Kudo-kai, a violent syndicate of the once powerful Yakuza, a Japanese criminal network whose membership has been snatched away by more aggressive law enforcement.
That effort has also given rise to a significant number of defectors such as Nakamoto, who are seeking to re-establish themselves after a life within hierarchies such as the family of Yakuza governed by a strict code of loyalty. The members are often conspicuous, with full body tattoos and little fingers cut off by the mob as punishment for wrongdoing.
For years, Jacob acted somewhat openly. The police had kept watch with the understanding that Yakub would take care of petty crimes on his grounds and would leave the civilians alone. But now, Japanese officials are applying more pressure as Yakuza’s power begins to wane.
In 2015, while serving his last prison sentence, Nakamoto reflected on where he was headed. He had lost faith in the organization and its future. It was time to leave.
“Even though I have left Jacob’s world, I have learned a lot. And what’s in the original is still the same,” says 55-year-old Nakamoto, sitting at his Udon restaurant in Kitakyushu, a city in southern Japan that is home to Kudo-kai.
“I was ready to do everything and die for my organization,” he says. “And now I’m just shifting gears with that mindset and putting that determination into living and working in normal society.”
But finding normalcy isn’t easy for former Yakuza members who face social stigma and significant legal hurdles. Some government programs offer financial support as members transition from the life of the crowd, but many doors remain closed.
Jacob’s membership is declining – the result of a decade of intense action targeting organized crime and Jacob’s access to illegal activities including drug trafficking, money laundering and gambling.
According to Japan’s National Center for the Removal of Criminal Organizations, there were about 70,300 known yakuza members in 2011, but by 2020 that number has dropped to 25,900. The exodus has made it possible for longtime members such as Nakamoto to leave the organization without fear of retaliation for breaking the code of loyalty.
On August 24, a Japanese court awarded what is believed to be the first death sentence of a yakuza boss, Kudo-kai leader Satoru Nomura, who was convicted of playing a role in an attack on four civilians, in which one was murdered. Was.
The verdict sent a widespread message that times were changing for Yakub.
After the sentencing, Nomura shouted at the judge: “You will regret this for the rest of your life.” (The verdict is now under appeal. Nomura’s lawyers later said the statement was not intended as a threat.)
“I think the effect of this sentence on the world of Yakuza is that the restrictions and rules for Yakuza will continue to be stricter,” says Garo Okita, a former Yakuza member who now writes semi-autobiographical books and film projects. takes care of. Japanese crime group. “Now that there is a precedent for the death penalty, the kudo-kai will not be seen as some extreme case, but as the same threat to all yakuza.”
About a decade ago, yakuza groups had become so brazen and financially powerful that authorities across Japan enacted ordinances prohibiting any business or person from being associated with yakuza members or activities.
The laws were designed to isolate yakuza from society, says Noboru Hirosu, a leading expert in criminal sociology and yakuza.
This meant that members of the yakuza could no longer open bank accounts, rent homes, obtain insurance or obtain mobile phones. Okita, who left the largest syndicate, Yamaguchi-gumi, in 2014 says the action restricted the families of Yakuza members and others within their social circles.
These changes led to the early retirement of major yakuza leaders, and the separation of many underlings.
“The law had a huge impact on the Jacobite world,” Okita says.
But Hirosu, who serves as a probation officer at the Justice Ministry, says the changes have led to an increase in other criminal networks outside of Yakuza. They say these groups have now moved on to new schemes, including elderly fraud, cybercrime and ways to profit from legal drugs like sleeping pills and morphine.
“Now, the Japanese underworld has entered a new phase,” Hirosu says.
Motohisa Nakamizo, who left Kudo-kai when his boss retired in 2011, was hired at his parents’ real estate company. This was his first legal employment after nearly 30 years handling Kudo-kai drug trafficking.
But such opportunities are rare.
Local regulations prohibit former members from doing activities such as opening a bank account or signing a lease for at least five years after leaving the network.
According to Hirosu’s analysis of the Ministry of Justice, employment figures for former members of the yakuza who filed their defection with the police, 3 percent of those who left between 2010 and 2018 found jobs. Some people who can’t find jobs return to their Jacobite organization, but others join new gangs, he says.
“Coming out of prison or Jacob’s organization, you have to think that for the first five years you’re not the same as everyone else. People often talk about starting from zero, but we’re starting from zero, to zero. working,” says 56-year-old Nakamizo, sitting in his office in Hakata, a town near Kitakyushu.
Nakamizo now hires former members at his real estate company as part of a Justice Ministry program. Yet only 10 percent of them are successful in the first five years. The rest usually turn to crime.
“I want society as a whole not to be prejudiced and [would] Give these people a chance,” he says. “Otherwise, it won’t let them go anywhere, and lead them down the wrong path.”
Many people face an education gap that is difficult to bridge. For example, Ryuchi Komura left Yamaguchi-gumi at the age of 38. His formal education ended in middle school, and he had served four prison sentences.
“I wanted to turn my life around,” he says. But their chances of getting a stable job were slim. He was interested in the law, but as a former member of Jacob’s, it was almost impossible for him to become a lawyer.
Instead, he decided to take the exam to become a judicial investigator, a job similar to a paralegal with a 3 percent acceptance rate. He had to study for eight years, and on his seventh attempt, he passed. He was 46 years old.
Twenty years ago, members of the Kudo-kai rammed a car into a tea shop in Kitakyushu. It was an act of revenge against the shop owner, Toshiyuki Suji, who had bought the Kudo-kai’s wanted building to prevent the gang from settling in the neighborhood.
So when Nakamoto, the Udon chef, tried to open his restaurant in Suji’s shopping district — while he was still under a five-year ban — the cards were stacked against him.
But Nakamoto built personal relationships with other vendors, was honest about his time with Kudo-kai, picked up trash from the street, and volunteered for the shopping district’s festivals and events.
“Nothing will change if you just wait for five years to pass, because there are restrictions,” he says. “You can’t wait for people to come to you and help you, you need to be the first to reach out.”
Suzy was impressed, and she took a chance. As head of the shopping district, Tsuji accepts Nakamoto’s request to open his own Udon restaurant.
“Even if someone is an ex-yakuza, if someone comes to me, I’ll talk with them first, looking into their eyes to see if they really want to start, and their Seriously,” Tsuji says. “Everyone is entitled to a basic freedom to work.”
On a recent weekday, a steady flow of customers had lunch at Nakamoto’s 13-seat restaurant, located in an alleyway between a hair salon and a launderette. He still volunteers for festivals and sweeps the street without asking.
His black long-sleeved shirt covers his tattoos while he works. But he doesn’t hide his past: A newspaper article featuring his story is drawn on the wall, and the restaurant bathroom holds Japanese comic books about the devoted house husband of an ex-yakuza boss.
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