THE MOBSTER TURNED PASTOR

image

Tatsuya Shindo became a gangster at the
age of 17
Like many other young men, he was lured by
the intoxicating illusion of an easy life of
crime
With his gangster tattoos he now preaches
to other reformed ex-yakusa
Kawaguchi, Japan (CNN)— It’s a rainy Sunday
morning in Kawaguchi, a city of around half a
million people on the outskirts of Tokyo. Men
and women toting Japan’s ubiquitous clear
plastic umbrellas file into the entrance of a
nondescript corner bar.
The sign above the door reads June Bride. For
25 years, it was a popular watering hole in this
quiet residential neighborhood in Saitama
Prefecture.
Tucked on a street corner, the exterior of June
Bride has changed little over the years. But
inside, the place has undergone a drastic
transformation. The old bar and karaoke stage
are gone, replaced by a pulpit adorned with a
large cross. Neat rows of chairs slowly fill with
damp but mostly smiling faces. They chat
silently amongst themselves.
While some faces in the crowd are longtime
bar patrons, they no longer come here to
drink. This is, without a doubt, a place of
worship.
One of the last people to enter the room is the
man everyone calls teacher, Sensei Tatsuya
Shindo.
From the moment he walks through the door,
parishioners forget the dreary weather as
electricity fills the room. Shindo takes
command of the pulpit — raising his arms,
nodding his head, and preaching with intensity
as if he is pulsating with “energy from above.”
Ex-gangster
Shindo is 44 but looks much younger, partially
because of his long hair and also because he
seems to have a permanent grin. He laughs
often, even when speaking about the dark past
he shares with many members of his
congregation of around 100 people.
“Before, we were in rival gangs, firing guns,”
he exclaims from the pulpit. “Now, we’re
praising the same God.”
Inside Japan’s murky criminal underworld
The pastor, like some of his parishioners, is an
ex-gangster. Most of them were teenagers
when they joined the Japanese mafia, known as
the yakuza. Shindo was 17.
“I was a child. I didn’t think too deeply,” he
says. “And I admired the yakuza for what was
visible only on the surface. They have lots of
money, spend their money lavishly, and play
glamorously. The bad guys looked so cool in
my eyes.”
Payment in blood
The intoxicating illusion of an easy life of
crime has lured tens of thousands of Japanese
teenagers to join the yakuza. Shindo says most
of his fellow gangsters came from
dysfunctional families. The yakuza fostered a
sense of loyalty and brotherhood. But as
Shindo fell deeper into the Japanese
underworld, he learned the price of belonging
was often paid in blood.
Japan begins probe against Yakuza, banks 04:47
“My boss was killed. People were killed in
power struggles. People’s legs were shot. A guy
who was doing drugs with me died of
intoxication. Suicides happened. Sudden
deaths. I’ve seen many deaths,” Shindo says. “I
saw my henchmen get stabbed to death.”
Shindo’s body bears the scars of his old life.
His chest and arms are covered in intricate
tattoos, the telltale symbol of mafia
membership in Japan. In an effort to exclude
yakuza members from society, visible tattoos
are forbidden in most public places. He often
removes his shirt when baptizing other
tattooed ex-gangsters.
He became addicted to crystal meth. He drove
under the influence and crashed his boss’s car.
He shows off his missing pinkie, which was cut
off with a chisel in a yakuza ritual of
atonement for the transgression.
Shindo was arrested seven times. He went to
prison three times, beginning at 22. By the
time he was 32, he had been excommunicated
by the yakuza after spending about 8 of 10
years as an inmate. He says he found God
while reading the bible in solitary confinement.
He studied and became a preacher after his
release more than a decade ago.
New life
Today, Shindo leads a growing congregation
from all walks of life.
“A lot of people with different backgrounds
come here. Those who are divorced, bankrupt
and cast away. There are also parents who
have missing children, those whose sons are
put into jail, or those who’ve been abandoned
after prison. This is a place to restart your
life,” he says. “A yakuza returning to society is
indeed extraordinary.”
One of the newest members of the
congregation is former yakuza member named
Hiro, who ran away from Japan’s largest crime
syndicate the Yamaguchi Gumi after after five
years.
“It’s really hard to get back to normal society,”
he says.
The 37-year old has been shunned by his
family and lays down a thin mat each night to
sleep on the church floor. A fellow worshipper
hired him as a painter.
“The life I had in the past, I never woke up in
the morning as early as I do now. I lived just
to earn money. To get money, I did bad things
and sold drugs as well. But my new life is the
important phase for me to become a better
person. I changed a lot after coming to this
church,” he says.
Hiro believes if he didn’t have the church, he’d
already be back in jail. He says this is a rare
chance to transform his life, in a society that
doesn’t easily give second chances to people
like him.
Yakuza shrinking
Ex-mobsters don’t have many options in Japan.
Their secretive underworld is shrinking and
profits are drying up from years of
government crackdowns. Today, police
estimate there are around 50,000 yakuza —
down dramatically from just a few years ago.
Jake Adelstein, an author and journalist in
Tokyo who has written extensively about the
yakuza, says the Japanese mafia keeps thugs in
check. He says if the yakuza lose influence,
street crime could surge in Tokyo, considered
the world’s safest city.
Japan’s mafia are being squeezed by the
steepest economic downturn in decades.
“They’re going to have to find a way to use
these people. And they’re going to have to find
a way to remove this stigma of being an ex-
yakuza,” Adelstein says. “These guys, when they
leave, they are going to petty crime, going to
jail, or killing themselves. A lot of them
commit suicides. Because, Japan isn’t a very
friendly place to people who have missing
fingers and covered with tattoos and who’ve
never worked in honest ways in a lot of days in
their life.”
In his new role as sensei, Shindo has baptized
about 100 people including his mother,
Yoshimi Shindo, who proudly watches her son
preach each Sunday.
“When he came back [from prison], he
apologized and said, ‘I survived for you,
mother.’ When I heard those words, I decided
to forget everything that happened in the past.
And now, I’m very happy,” she says.
When her son needed a space for Sunday
service, she gladly offered June Bride, the bar
she owned and ran for a quarter century. In
the early years, fewer than 10 people attended
Sunday service. Now, the room is routinely
filled with dozens of people each weekend.
“I think this place has significance that God
provided here for us. I believe it was God’s
intention,” she says.
She laughs that her son is called sensei,
considering the tumultuous path that brought
him here. June Bride is no longer a place for
cocktails and karaoke, but the room is filled
music each weekend as dozens of voices sing
upbeat Christian songs.
“I believe my son’s life portrays God’s surprise
ending,” she adds

Source : CNN

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