Outside of Japan, the yakuza is famous but clouded in mystery and vagueness. We may be familiar with certain visual markers and rituals - the tattoos, the missing finger joints, etc. - but few of us could actually name a yakuza boss or even a yakuza organization. To those with an interest in the topic, it's helpful to remember that the yakuza's sinister-yet-somehow-glamorous reputation comes from the criminal acts of individual people who really lived, and who really impacted the history of Japan.
So, who are they? Who are the Japanese analogues to Al Capone and John Dillinger, Bugsy Siegel and John Gotti? Below are a few of the most notorious yakuza figures, and the actions that brought them notoriety.
One of the major midcentury yakuza figures, Kazuo Taoka (pictured, center) headed Yamaguchi-gumi in the postwar years and oversaw its development into an immensely powerful cartel. Like Yoshi Kodama, who also flourished in the war years and afterward, Taoka professed far-right, ultranationalist political views.
In 1978, a rival gang member shot Taoka in the back of the neck while he was at a Kyoto nightclub. Taoka survived the attack. His would-be assassin, Kiyoshi Narumi, was found brutally murdered on a mountainside a few weeks later.
Taoka lived three more years before passing of a heart attack in 1981 amid mounting legal troubles. Afterward, his widow Fumiko was briefly the de facto head of Yamaguchi-gumi until she appointed a successor in 1984.
- 2207 VOTES
Kenichi Shinoda Killed A Rival Boss With A Samurai Sword
Back in the 1970s, while Shinoda was leader of the Kodo-Kai organization (a Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate), he killed a rival boss with a samurai sword. He served 13 years in prison for this offense. In the 1980s, he was kidnapped and tortured by the rival Dojin-Kai gang.
- 3320 VOTES
Satoru Nomura Was Sentenced To Hang, And Responded By Threatening The Judge
Satoru Nomura is the head of Kudo-Kai, a yakuza organization. In September 2021, he was sentenced to death for his involvement in a series of murders and attempted murders that took place between 1998 and 2014. The sentence was seen as an example of the Japanese government cracking down more seriously on yakuza activity than it had previously.
One of the attempted hits was carried out in 2013 against a nurse, who was stabbed by a Kudo-Kai henchman but survived. According to prosecutors, Nomura had a grudge against her because she had provided poor care to him following a botched penis-enlargement surgery.
Upon hearing the sentence handed down, Nomura said to the presiding judge, “I asked you for a fair judgment. But this is not fair at all. You will regret this for the rest of your life.”
- 4133 VOTES
Tadamasa Goto Received An Expedited Liver Transplant As A Reward For Working With The FBI
Tadamasa Goto, leader of the group Goto-gumi, had been barred from entering the US because of his criminal history. However, he was able to obtain a visa to enter the country in 2001, in exchange for providing information to the FBI about yakuza activity in America.
While in the US, Goto underwent liver transplantation surgery at UCLA from one of the top surgeons in America - in spite of the fact that there was organ scarcity and more than 100 people per year were dying at this time due to a lack of available transplant livers.
Jim Stern, former chief of the FBI's Asian criminal enterprise unit, took over the unit after the deal had been struck with Goto, and told the Los Angeles Times that he felt the FBI had been essentially taken for a ride by the yakuza boss:
I don’t think Goto gave the bureau anything of significance. [He] came to the States and got a liver and was laughing back to where he came from... It defies logic.
Goto himself responded to such complaints in his bestselling 2010 autobiography, Pardon Me But..., writing:
If the Americans are going to whine about it so much, they can come to Japan and take the liver back. The Washington Post, the LA Times, if they want the liver, come and get it.
- 5163 VOTES
Yoshio Kodama Was Named A Rear Admiral And Arranged Security For A Visit From President Eisenhower
Yoshio Kodama, an early yakuza godfather, rose with Imperial Japan in the 1930s and '40s but survived its downfall and continued to prosper in the postwar era. He spied for the Japanese government in China during the war years and became immensely wealthy by smuggling valuable metals back to Japan. He was promoted to rear admiral by the Japanese government for his efforts.
Though classified a "Class A War Criminal" by occupying US forces after the war, Kodama received amnesty after two years in prison and became valued by the Americans for his strong anti-communist leanings. He used yakuza thugs to crack down on leftist groups and organized labor, and in 1960 he even organized security for a visit by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
- 690 VOTES
Tetsuya Shiroo Murdered The Mayor Of Nagasaki
Tetsuya Shiroo was a high-ranking member of Yamaguchi-gumi when, in 2007, he fatally shot Itcho Ito, the mayor of Nagasaki.
Shiroo received a death sentence from the Nagasaki District Court; the presiding judge said his crime "infringed on the people’s right to vote and destabilized democracy at its roots." A newspaper editorial at the time opined:
If the use of violence is tolerated when others do not do as one says, the freedom of speech will be lost. It risks pushing the country back to its wrong, dark years before the war.
Prosecutors later alleged the killing may have been motivated by Shiroo's financial troubles, and by his inability to secure loans from the city for a construction company he was affiliated with.
Shiroo did not survive to see his sentence carried out; he passed away in prison in January 2020.