Increasingly, the yakuza's best play became siphoning money from government-financed construction projects. The gangs embedded themselves into the construction industry, commanding commissions on public works projects in return for ensuring that the job would be completed on time, without labor disruptions.
It didn't end until the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, saddled with a massive public debt, began cutting its spending on public works. Commissions dried up. And when further laws were passed to try to crack down on the epidemic of bid rigging, it became even harder to lean on civic officials.
The latest National Police Agency report on crime, released last week, says the \o7yakuza\f7 have recently replaced lost earnings by striking secret partnerships with companies to make money from Japanese stock markets. But the report says only a few gangs are benefiting, creating an increasing rich-poor gap in the underworld.
The squeeze has been felt deeply in places such as Nagasaki, where Shiroo's connections in the construction business started going bankrupt. Nagasaki has only 620 full-time \o7yakuza\f7 members, a minuscule share of the roughly 80,000 full- and part-time gangsters across the country, according to police statistics. But fights among rival gangs escalated in the last couple of years as everyone scrambled for a bigger share of a smaller pie.
In the end, it was these new economic realities that caught up with Shiroo. Raised in the era of easy money, this old-style \o7yakuza\f7 could not adjust to new times.
"His position was being narrowed further and further until he was chased into a corner," says Yutaka Takehana, a former aide to Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara who led an effort to clean up the vice in the Kabukicho neighborhood. "He wasn't good at living in this cleaner world."
Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.