The Kudo-kai, a designated organized crime syndicate based in the southwest Japan city of Kitakyushu, has seen its membership fall to 260 people as of the end of 2019, down around half of the 540 people it had at the end of 2013, before the Fukuoka Prefectural Police undertook tactics to arrest its senior executives and dissolve the group.
According to the prefectural police, a series of arrests of the Kudo-kai's executives and other members has caused it to lose its unity, and people are reportedly continuing to leave the gang. One former member in his 40s spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun about how he felt when he decided to leave the group amid the police crackdown.
The man joined the Kudo-kai after being introduced to it by someone he met in prison. He was in his late 20s at the time, and though he had no burning desire to be a yakuza, he did think at the time that there was an allure to living as an outlaw.
He started out learning how to collect debts on illicitly sold stimulants by watching his peers do it, and soon saw his business take off. Eventually he was arrested by police and incarcerated again, but prison became an opportunity to widen his connections for illegally selling the substances. When business was good, he could earn close to 2 million yen a month (about $18,840), and he was constantly changing whatever luxury car he was driving. "If you sold a few packs you could soon buy one of the cars," the man said. When out shopping, he never concerned himself with the price of anything.
Those days came to an abrupt end with the police's tactics to arrest senior executives. On Sept. 11, 2014, the group's top boss Satoru Nomura, 73, was arrested on suspicion of murder over his alleged involvement in the 1998 fatal shooting of a former fishing cooperative chief. The news sent the Kudo-kai's members into a panic, despite the belief he would soon be bailed. Many in the organization saw the arrest as "performance" retaliation for the 2012 shooting of a former police inspector tasked with investigating the group.
But Nomura was indicted by investigators, and cases pertaining to other shootings of city residents were also built one-by-one. This time, the police were serious.
A while after his leader's arrest, the man was himself imprisoned again over his involvement in a stimulants case. With other members of the group leaving, the thought of breaking ties crossed his mind for the first time. Some of the organization's top officials, who served as central decision makers, were being arrested one after another, and stricter confiscations had left the remaining bosses desperate for cash. He started to think then, that if he left prison, there wouldn't be anyone for him to follow.
It was at that time that he received a letter in prison from his mother, who had effectively disowned him. Its words were harsh: "With someone like you around, this family can't lead a normal life. Please die. I want to kill myself, too." But he was moved to tears as he read on, "But you are the son I carried in me, and even though I feel hate, I also feel love." He looked at the older prisoners, who looked forward to eating castella cake and biscuits once a month, and saw a future like theirs for him as a yakuza member. He realized that now was the only chance he had to reclaim his life, and went to the prefectural police to discuss support in leaving the organization.
After leaving prison, he started a job in autumn 2019 at a delivery firm. When he was a member of the criminal organization, he was always expected to defer to the bosses, and in difficult situations to put his life on the line or go to prison for the group. He believed it was the quick way to get ahead in that world. But now he doesn't have to fear being investigated. These days, he makes his monthly income as a driver, and felt the small joy of being able to finally go to work by car after spending some time walking on foot, and then traveling by bike.
When his mother told him, "I want to see grandchildren soon. I'll live a long time!" he felt happy. It's been six years since the prefectural police started their crackdown tactics. The group he once swore loyalty to continues to deteriorate. For those members still questioning whether they should make a break from it, he said he now wants to tell them to "walk a different path."