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Fugitive Japanese gang member arrested in Thailand after tattoos circulated online

Japanese gang member Shigeharu Shirai displays his tattoos at a police station during a press conference in Lopburi, central Thailand PICTURE: AP
By Kaweewit Kaewjinda, Associated Press

Police in Thailand have arrested a 74-year-old fugitive Japanese gang member who was recognised when photos of his full-body tattoos were circulated online.

A police statement said Shigeharu Shirai was arrested on Wednesday in a province north of Bangkok where he has been hiding for more than 10 years to evade murder charges in Japan in connection with the death of a rival gang member.

His arrest apparently came after photos of him sitting around a checkers table were posted on Facebook in August last year by a Thai who was impressed by the man's tattoos.

The post was shared more than 10,000 times and some users identified the former gang member.

Police General Wirachai Songmetta said Japanese associates paid visits to Shirai two to three times a year, each time bearing cash gifts. He is married to a Thai woman and kept a low profile over the past decade.

Shirai will face illegal entry charges before he is handed over to Japanese authorities, the police statement said.

Police said Shirai was implicated, along with seven others, in the killing of Kazuhiko Otobe. Japan's Kyodo News service said police in Mie prefecture had obtained an arrest warrant in the 15-year-old case.

Shirai and Otobe were members of small rival factions affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest yakuza, or underworld, syndicate.

Tattoos on the back, upper arms and a missing tip of a little finger are trademarks of Japanese yakuza. Tattooed guests are often refused entry to public baths and swimming pools.

According to the National Police Agency, 22 organisations were designated as organised crime groups in 2017, with membership totalling more than 20,000.

Almost three-quarters of the gangsters belong to the Yamaguchi-gumi and two other groups, Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai, which together dominate Japan's underworld.

In addition to illegal drug sales and gambling, which are their traditional ways of earning money, gangsters also have entered construction, finance and security businesses.

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