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Yamaguchi-gumi Split Signals Changes in the Yakuza World

Ino Kenji [Profile]


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.”

  • [2015.12.07]

Ino Kenji was born in Shiga Prefecture in 1933. He began his career as an in-house reporter and editor at magazines and newspapers and has long worked as a freelance journalist. Ino ranks as a pioneering journalist in the coverage of yakuza, ultra-rightists, and sokaiya extortionists. Works include Yakuza to Nihonjin (Yakuza and the Japanese People), Nihon no uyoku (Japan’s Right Wing), and Yamaguchi-gumi gairon: saikyō soshiki wa naze seiritsu shita no ka (An Introduction to the Yamaguchi-gumi: The Formation of Japan’s Strongest Criminal Organization).

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