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Yoshio Kodama

Kyodo

In his prime Yoshio Kodama was considered the most powerful postwar yakuza Godfather, reputed to have influenced the Emperor and Prime Minister. Just in case that wasn' enough, he was also a jailbird, author, spy and the second wealthiest man in Japan.

Kodama came from a poor background and spent most of his unhappy childhood living with relatives in Korea. At 21, he founded an extreme right-wing, ultranationalist group called the Independence Youth Society (Dokuritsu Seinen Sha ) in Japan with the main objective of assassinating the PM and top cabinet ministers. Not surprisingly, he was arrested and imprisoned for three-and-a-half years when the authorities discovered his plan.

Recognizing Kodama's skills and contacts, the Foreign Ministry bravely recruited him to go on a fact-finding mission in North China, where he adeptly established a network of spies and informants. And in 1942 the Naval Air Force commissioned him to collect raw materials for the Japanese war effort. During WWII his organization, known as Kodama Kikan, bought and sold cobalt, copper, nickel, radium and occasionally heroin. Although he declared it was "an organization with no thought of profit" by the end of the war Kodama Kikan was worth $175 million. In 1945, the 34 year-old Kodama was the second wealthiest man in Japan and promoted to Rear Admiral by an appreciative government.

The occupation forces, however, were less impressed, and after the Japanese surrender Kodama was imprisoned as a high-risk, Class A war criminal who should never be released. But in December 1948, he was unexpectedly set free.

This was not an act of benevolence on the part of the occupation forces but a strategic move to try and eliminate the yakuza, whose activities had gone underground and flourished in the wake of rationing and blackmarketeering-over 5000 gangs were fighting each other for supremacy in the absence of a clear leader and were out of control. Exit a lot of little fingers. Enter Kodama: contacts, money and leadership potential.

The pinnacle of his career was to realize a truce between the warring factions, uniting them under the collective title yakuza. Dubbed "The Kingmaker," he emerged as Japan's most powerful behind-the-scenes figure of the late 1960's and '70's, his wealth, power and connections drawing respect from all quarters.

Kodama was at the center of numerous dubious dealings that included accepting $150,000 from the CIA to smuggle a shipload of tungsten out of China. The load never arrived - he claimed it sank in transit but kept the money anyway. Eventually, though, The Kingmaker overstepped the mark and the result was the nation-rocking Lockheed Scandal.

Lockheed Corporation wanted to break into the Japanese market with their military and civilian aircraft, including their new TriStar. In return for a $2.1 million bribe, Kodama publicly discredited the ANA President, forcing him to resign and making way for someone more receptive to Kodama's-and Lockheed's-interests. Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas were not impressed. When the scandal broke in 1976, tax officials started probing a bit more closely and found an additional $6 million in evaded taxes.

Kodama's supporters were so shocked at the revelations that one-actor Mitsuyasu Maeno-flew his plane into Kodama's Setagaya home in a semi-successful kamikaze mission: only the pilot died.

Unlike most dishonored Japanese leaders (who take their own life), Kodama suffered a stroke in January 1984 and died peacefully while awaiting trial. The title of the memoirs he wrote in jail serves as a fitting epitaph: I was defeated.

Catherine Frances

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