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Japanese Yakuza boss arrested in Thailand after police identify him by his tattoos

Lucy Pasha-Robinson
Japanese gang member Shigeharu Shirai displays his tattoos at a police station in central Thailand: AP

A Japanese gang member who evaded police for 14 years has been captured by authorities in Thailand after images of his distinctive body tattoos went viral.

Shigeharu Shirai was arrested to the north of Bangkok where he had been in hiding to evade murder charges in Japan in connection with the death of a rival gang member.

The 74-year-old was arrested after photos of him playing checkers at an outdoor table were posted to Facebook last year by a Thai man who was impressed by his tattoos.

The post quickly went viral and was shared more than 10,000 times, allowing police to identify Shirai.

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 is accused of being one of eight gangsters involved in the murder of another gang leader in 2003 (AP)

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.

Additional reporting by agencies