A retired Japanese crime boss has been arrested in Thailand, ending more than 14 years on the run, after photos of his yakuza tattoos and a missing little finger went viral.
Shigeharu Shirai, 72, was apprehended while he was shopping on Wednesday in the central market town of Lopburi.
Japanese authorities had sought his arrest over an alleged role in the shooting of a rival in 2003, after which he fled to Thailand, married a local woman and drifted into a seemingly peaceful retirement.
That was until a resident posted photos of the diminutive retiree playing a streetside checkers game with his intricate gang tattoos on full show and a missing little finger – yakuza members often slice off a fingertip to atone for an offence.
The images were shared more than 10,000 times and caught the attention of Japanese police, who alerted the Thai authorities.
“The suspect admitted he was the leader of the yakuza sub-gang Kodokai,” said a Thai police spokesman, Gen Wirachai Songmetta, referring to an affiliate of Japan’s largest yakuza gang, Yamaguchi-gumi.
The yakuza emerged in the chaos of postwar Japan, transforming into multibillion-dollar criminal organisations involved in gambling, drugs, prostitution, loan sharking, protection rackets and white-collar crime.
They were tolerated as a necessary evil to keep order on the streets – however dubious the means. Unlike the Italian mafia or Chinese triads, yakuza are not illegal and each group has its own headquarters, sometimes in full view of police.
Shirai is accused of shooting dead the boss of a rival faction, for which seven members of his gang were imprisoned for between 12 and 17 years.
“The suspect has not confessed to murder but has admitted that the victim used to bully him,” the Thai police spokesman said.
The mobster boss kept a low profile during his stay in Thailand, police said, receiving money two or three times each year from a visiting Japanese man.
With no passport or visa, he was arrested for entering Thailand illegally and will be extradited to face prosecution in Japan.
This story originally appeared in The Guardian. Image courtesy of AFP/Getty Images.