Yamaguchi-gumi Split Signals Changes in the Yakuza World


A large faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza crime syndicate, moved in August to establish a rival syndicate, triggering concerns of a possible bloodbath. Ino Kenji, a journalist who has covered the Yamaguchi-gumi extensively, looks back on the history of the organization and argues that such concerns are unfounded.

A Yakuza Centennial

In August 2015, a split in Japan’s largest crime syndicate sparked media rumors of a potential gang war. The breaking off of a Kobe faction makes it a historic year in more ways than one for the Yamaguchi-gumi. The yakuza organization was founded a century ago and is led by Tsukasa Shinobu (born Shinoda Ken’ichi), who became its sixth-generation leader a decade ago.

The Yamaguchi-gumi takes its name from its founder and first-generation leader, Yamaguchi Harukichi. A former fisherman, Harukichi was a foreman for the yakuza Ōshima Hideyoshi, who controlled the dispatching of day-labor longshoremen in Kobe. In 1915, he set out on his own, taking about 50 longshoremen with him.

Harukichi subsequently cultivated close ties with city councilmen and used those ties to secure a commercial foothold in the naniwabushi world of dramatic recitation. His son and successor, Noboru, expanded the family business greatly, extending its influence into the music industry and into the realm of sumō wrestling.

The Yamaguchi-gumi thus focused under its first- and second-generation leaders on more or less legal undertakings. It embarked on the criminal path that has since characterized the organization under the third-generation head, Taoka Kazuo.

Taoka took charge of the Yamaguchi-gumi in 1946. He took umbrage at the way that ethnic Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese gangsters were, in his eyes, running amok in postwar Japan, as if they did not have to follow the laws of a defeated nation. And he fortified the Yamaguchi-gumi’s presence in stevedoring and entertainment in the spirit of countering those foreign elements.

The Korean War supercharged the Yamaguchi-gumi’s stevedoring business as the US military rushed massive amounts of materiel through Kobe’s port. Taoka had foreseen the postwar growth in store for dock work and had forged a coalition of stevedoring companies. His prescience paid off in spades as demand for cargo handling surged.

A Firm Grip on the Showbiz World

When Taoka took the helm in 1946, the Yamaguchi-gumi had just 33 members, but by 1975, the organization’s membership had swelled to 11,000. That astounding growth is attributable to Taoka’s skillfully administered carrot-and-stick approach to managing relationships.

Taoka set up a talent agency after the end of World War II to advance the Yamaguchi-gumi’s presence in the entertainment industry. The agency promptly secured exclusive contracts with the singers Misora Hibari and Tabata Yoshio, who both became huge stars. It also handled the legendary professional wrestler Rikidōzan. Underlying the agency’s success was the backing of Nagata Sadao, a seminal impresario in Japan’s postwar entertainment industry.

A 1953 attack by Yamaguchi-gumi members on the singer and movie actor Tsuruta Kōji underscored the syndicate’s hold on the entertainment industry. Tsuruta was phenomenally popular, but his manager had antagonized the Yamaguchi-gumi leader.

Tsuruta’s manager had displayed what Taoka regarded as a bad attitude during a visit to request cooperation with an Osaka concert. By way of reprisal, Yamaguchi-gumi operatives beat up Tsuruta where he was dining at an Osaka hotel.

The attack on Tsuruta sent shock waves through Japan’s entertainment industry. It dispatched the message that advancement in the industry would henceforth take place through the Yamaguchi-gumi. The syndicate’s talent agency would secure the highest compensation in the industry for clients who toed the line, and it would deal firmly with those who did not. Sure enough, Japan’s finest talents were soon making a beaten path to its door.

Taoka’s carrot-and-stick approach worked as well in building a network of gangs as it did in assembling a portfolio of show-business talent. The Yamaguchi-gumi boss used his hold on Japan’s show-business talents to assert and reinforce a hold over gangs nationwide.

Regional gangs were eager to produce shows that featured stars certain to draw crowds. And Taoka obliged them with marquee names from his talent agency. He was merciless, meanwhile, with gangs that resisted his overtures. The history of gangland violence during his reign is largely a tale wrought by the Yamaguchi-gumi.

Criminal Social Responsibility?

Japan’s yakuza gangs, unlike criminal groups in other nations, maintain formal headquarters. Their gang names and crests appear forthrightly in directories of the buildings that they occupy, and their members are active and visible participants in the life of their host communities.

The yakuza have gained favorable attention through their work in relief efforts in the wake of natural disasters. Epitomizing the yakuza community commitment was the support that the Yamaguchi-gumi mobilized for the relief effort after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. That earthquake devastated large swaths of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s hometown of Kobe and gangs prepared and delivered comprehensive relief supplies.

Japan’s mass media, however, provided no direct coverage of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s efforts on behalf of the earthquake survivors. The only mention I recall of its relief assistance in Kobe by a national Japanese newspaper was laughably indirect. “A leading British newspaper,” intoned the Japanese daily grudgingly, “reported yakuza participation in the relief effort.”

The Unlikelihood of a Bloodbath

Memories are still fresh of the 1980s gang war between the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Ichiwa-kai. That conflict erupted when an unsuccessful claimant to the leadership of the Yamaguchi-gumi and nearly 3,000 loyal gang members launched the Ichiwa-kai as a rival syndicate. Known as the Yama-Ichi War, the conflict claimed some 25 lives in clashes nationwide, mainly in and around Kobe and Osaka.

A repeat of violence on the scale of the Yama-Ichi War would seem to be extremely unlikely. To be sure, the recent split appears to have figured in an October shooting in Nagano Prefecture. That shooting took the life of a Yamaguchi-gumi gangster who reportedly sought to join the breakaway Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi gang. But both sides have downplayed the incident as “a personal matter.”

Run-ins between gangs of the rival syndicates have also occurred since the split in the cities of Akita, Toyama, and Nagoya. But both organizations moved to minimize the repercussions of those incidents in a show of conspicuous restraint.

The yakuza restraint reflects the pressure that the gangsters are feeling from the toughening stance of the Japanese authorities. Japan’s Organized Crime Group Countermeasures Law has undergone progressive strengthening through five revisions. And local governments throughout the nation have enacted ordinances aimed at eliminating yakuza influence in business and in community life. Especially effective have been newly adopted legal provisions that make gang leaders criminally responsible for the actions of their underlings.

Amid the mutual restraint being exhibited by the Yamaguchi-gumi and the breakaway Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, the latter displays a somewhat more proactive stance by requiring lower monthly dues payable by affiliated gang leaders.

Under the fifth-generation head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the dues in that syndicate started at a reported ¥650,000 but later rose to around ¥1,000,000. The dues have declined back to ¥650,000 under Tsukasa. In contrast, Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi gang leaders pay only a rumored ¥400,000 in monthly dues.

A further problem for the Yamaguchi-gumi is the declining number of gang leaders paying dues directly, meaning it is now apparently caught in a financial crunch.

Both the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi appear committed to avoiding open warfare. A vigorous rivalry between the syndicates is unfolding, however, through other channels. The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi presumably has a leaner cost structure than its older, larger rival. And the upstart appears to have scored some points with its dues stratagem.

Peaceful Coexistence Likely

The members of the Yamaguchi-gumi gangs loyal to Tsukasa ostensibly outnumber those of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi gangs seven to three. Rumors are circulating, however, that about 1,000 Yamaguchi-gumi gang members in Kyūshū formerly aligned with Tsukasa have gone over to the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.

I asked a senior member of a Kyūshū-based gang unaffiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi about the outlook for relations between the rival syndicates. He opined that the two are likely to opt for peaceful coexistence.

“Some minor run-ins occurred after the split,” explained the gangster, “but nothing serious. The mass media are playing this up as if a full-blown gang war were about to break out. But that strikes me as impossible. If a war broke out, the leaders of both sides would get hauled off as the perpetrators. The authorities could dig up old stuff about the top bosses and use even small-time infractions to put them away. That would screw things up in a big way for the syndicates.

“Once, the crack up of a big syndicate would put everyone around on edge. But this time, people are staying cool. And why not? Nearly everyone knows it would be dumb to make a fuss. I figure that the two organizations will get along.”

Modernization of Yakuza Gangs

Rapid change is under way in how the yakuza operate. Traditionally, the expulsion of a gang leader from a yakuza syndicate spelled the demise of his gang. The expelled gang leader would become a pariah in the yakuza underworld, and his former colleagues would sever ties with his gang.

We now see once-expelled gang leaders regaining membership in their former syndicates. We see gangs welcoming as members former “foot soldiers” who have fallen from grace. We see frequent flouting of yakuza precepts that were once absolute. We see gangs reaching out to the underlings of disgraced leaders.

Fallings out among yakuza gangs simply don’t mean, in other words, what they used to mean. An intra-syndicate conflict between two gangs formerly resulted in all the other gangs in the organization aligning with one or the other. Nowadays, the other gangs are likely to keep their distance from both. We should perhaps regard that trend as signifying the yakuza’s emergence from their feudalistic past and into the modern era.

New Threats to Public Order

The yakuza population is dwindling. Japan’s National Police Agency reports that the number of yakuza, including trainees, declined 39% from 2005 to 2014, shrinking from 86,300 to 53,500. A lot of the former yakuza, however, continue to engage in criminal pursuits under other names. The post-yakuza pursuits sometimes entail an uptick in malevolence.

Epitomizing the persistence of criminal activity among former yakuza 20 years ago was a notorious section of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Shinjuku is a sprawling center of nightlife, and the quarter in question was a favored hangout for individuals who had been expelled from yakuza gangs. They engaged in such illicit undertakings as fraud, extortion, and “fixing” for corporate and political disputes.

New modes of criminal organization have emerged in recent years. Some bear names that have become well known. The Kantō Rengō, formerly a notorious motorcycle gang, is one such group. Dragon, another gang, draws its membership primarily from the children and grandchildren of Japanese left behind in the wartime evacuation of China.

Numerous criminal groups have coalesced as small bands of ruffians armed with knives and clubs. Those groups lie outside the purview of Japan’s Organized Crime Group Countermeasures Law. Also beyond the scope of that law are the foreign gangsters who are a growing presence in Tokyo’s nightlife districts. That underlines the pressing need for broadening Japan’s legal framework for addressing the threats posed by organized crime.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on November 17, 2015. Banner photo: Tsukasa Shinobu, the sixth-generation leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate, leaves prison in April 2011. He had served more than five years for a violation of Japan’s Swords and Firearms Control Law. © Jiji.)

Kobe crime yakuza Misora Hibari Yamaguchi-gumi organized crime