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Glimpse at a faded yakuza

Just why a desperate Japanese gangster killed a mayor is a mystery, but the act has lifted a veil on a crime syndicate that has hit hard times.

July 23, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Nagasaki, Japan — FOR all the trouble he'd caused, Nagasaki gangster Tetsuya Shiroo had atoned by cutting off half a little finger and the tips of two others.

And things were not looking up.

The yakuza code calls for troublesome members to perform the joint-by-joint amputations when they upset the bosses. Shiroo was an old-style gangster. A man who believed in the rituals.

But yakuza life was hard and getting harder for Shiroo. Everyone knew he had money troubles. His bosses expected him to kick about $3,000 a month their way in homage, and it was tough coming up with the cash in a city where business had been so bad for so long. Even worse, the once-lucrative option of skimming money from public works projects was dying now that the Japanese government had turned off the geyser of public money.

Shiroo knew guys living off their wives and girlfriends, others collecting social security. He had tried selling a newfangled brand of paving stones. Had tried peddling $300 statues of dogs to mark the Year of the Dog.

He had health problems too. In more prosperous times Shiroo had been a big man, chubby even, with a slight waddle that led one friend to call him "Penguin Man" (though never to his face). Now he was 59 and weakened by diabetes. Had dropped 25 pounds. Seemed depressed.

Friends wrote off his moods to his separation from his fourth wife, or worries about his 4-year-old son, born with Down syndrome. He seemed listless, his former daughter-in-law said.

But there was no sign of the explosion to come.

In a cellphone conversation on the afternoon of April 17, Shiroo told a friend he was looking for Nagasaki's mayor. The city was in the midst of an election and Mayor Itcho Ito was campaigning for a fourth term. Shiroo told his friend he had a document he wanted to show the mayor and asked where to find him.

The friend suggested he wait until the end of the day and try the mayor's campaign office. Four hours later, Shiroo had an associate drop him off near the spot, where he waited for Ito to return.

When the mayor arrived shortly before 8 p.m., Shiroo stepped up behind him, pulled out a handgun and fired two shots into his back. The bullets knocked Ito onto the rough sidewalk, where he began to bleed to death.

Shiroo tried to run but was tackled by the mayor's wife and aides. Ito's wife was screaming as they pinned him to the ground. Some witnesses later told reporters the killer reeked of booze.

Shiroo confessed almost immediately, police said. Told them he had a long-standing grievance with Nagasaki city officials over their refusal to compensate him for damage when his car hit a pothole left by their construction crews. Said he didn't want Ito to win reelection and had planned the hit for two months. Claimed he acted alone.

Nobody's buying it. But in the weeks since Ito's death, the people of Nagasaki have come no closer to knowing what provoked Shiroo to gun down their mayor. Was there a deeper connection, they wonder, between the mayor of this high-profile city and a run-of-the-mill gangster?

"No one understands the real motive," says Mitsuhiro Suganuma, a former specialist on the yakuza, or crime syndicate, with Japan's Public Security Intelligence Agency. "Shiroo knew what kind of trouble he was going to cause, and he knew he would go to jail for the rest of his life. He would not abandon his life for such a small cause.

"The prosecutors have enough evidence to get a conviction at the trial," Suganuma says. "But they will never find the real motive."

Even so, the tale of this small-time gangster on the down slope, a dead-ender in an otherwise unremarkable crime syndicate, has lifted the mists surrounding the yakuza in this southern port city. In the process, it has scraped some of the glamour off the yakuza's once-romantic image.

TETSUYA Shiroo came to the gangster's life as a teenager. His father was a miner who had killed a man and gone to prison. Some media reports say his father killed himself there, though Nagasaki police are unable to confirm how he died. He left a wife and young son.

The son tried to go straight for a while. Shiroo sold newspapers in Nagasaki, then moved to Tokyo as a young adult to try his hand as a sushi chef. Later, after serving a prison sentence for trying to extort money from a previous Nagasaki mayor, he attempted the straight life again by taking a job at Mitsubishi's Nagasaki shipyard.

It didn't last. The wages were too low, and Shiroo kept getting sucked back into the gangs, says a friend of more than 20 years.

The friend, a muckraking local journalist with a long list of enemies in politics and business, will allow himself to be identified only by the pen name Rimpei Minoshima, which he is using for his book about the Ito assassination called "Nightmare in Nagasaki."

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