A former Japanese gang leader has been arrested in Thailand after more than 14 years on the run after photos of his tattoos went viral.
Shigeharu Shirai, 74, was a boss of the notorious Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, until he fled to Thailand in 2003 after supposedly murdering another gang leader.
The fugitive has been accused of shooting rival gangster Kashihiko Otobe, who was the deputy leader of the rival Kamiya gang, a crime which seven members of Shirai’s gang were imprisoned for 12-17 years for.
He was arrested while out shopping in Lopburi, a city north of Bangkok, after photos of him sitting around a checkers table were posted on Facebook in August last year by a Thai man who was impressed by the man’s distinctive full body tattoos.
The person who posted the photos captioned them: ‘Uncle, you’re my idol. When I grow up, will I look like you?’
The post was shared more than 10,000 times, with some users identifying the former gang member.
His arrest brought an end to a multi-national manhunt between the Thai Investigation Bureau and the Japanese Interpol.
‘The suspect admitted that he was the leader of the Yakuza sub-gang Kodokai,’ Thai police spokesman General Wirachai Songmetta said, referring to an affiliate of Japan’s largest Yakuza gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi.
However, while Shirai confessed to being a gang-leader, he did not admit murdering his rival.
Instead, he said that the victim had been bullied and there might have been plots within Yakuza subgroups to kill him.
The former crime boss also has a missing little finger on his left hand.
The Yakuza commonly punish wayward members by amputating the tip of a finger.
Shirai had built a new life in Thailand and kept a ‘low profile’, marrying a Thai woman and drifting into a seemingly peaceful retirement.
Police say that Japanese associates paid visits to Shirai two to three times a year, each time bearing cash gifts at around 10,000 baht (£232).
With no passport or visa, he was officially arrested for entering Thailand illegally and will be extradited to face prosecution in Japan.
Traditional Japanese tattooing, or irezumi, evolved as a protest to authorities tattooing criminals in a practice called bokkei, which would make it hard for them to find employment.
The full body suit tattoo, which covers almost the whole body such as Shirai’s, is typical of the designs seen on members.
In modern times, not all members have the tattoos, in order to better blend in with society.
The Yakuza emerged in the chaos of post-war Japan turning into multi-billion-dollar criminal organisations involved in everything from gambling, drugs and prostitution to loan sharking, protection rackets and white-collar crime.
They were long tolerated as a necessary evil to keep order on the streets and getting things done quickly – however dubious the means.
Despite their notorious reputation the Yakuza are not illegal like the Italian Mafia or Chinese triads, and each group has its own headquarters in full view of police.