The largest criminal organization in Japan has fractured. Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza crime syndicate, is undergoing a massive defection, with thousands of members splitting off to form a rival gang. The schism has some fearing a new gang war.
Since its founding 100 years ago, Yamaguchi-gumi has undergone several transformations. Initially an association of dockworkers, the group soon began selling “protection” services to local businesses and took up racketeering, loan-sharking and extortion to raise money.
Not all of its activities are illegal. It also provides security for the nuclear industry, doles out food after natural disasters, and dabbles in the entertainment industry. The Yamaguchi-gumi isn’t even illegal under Japanese law — it’s merely regulated.
Yakuza is a broad term that encompasses 21 organized crime syndicates in Japan. It can also refer to an individual member of a gang. Yamaguchi-gumi is the largest yakuza syndicate recognized by Japanese police. The word yakuza means “eight-nine-three,” a reference to a bad hand in the Japanese card game oichokabu.
Traditionally, the yakuza rejected violence against civilians. Given the orderly nature of Japanese society, the mere perception of organized crime accomplished the desired level of intimidation. While yakuza engage in loan-sharking and money-laundering, they also do charity work, especially in the wake of natural disasters.
If a yakuza offends a superior, they will often chop off one of their own pinkies to show remorse.
Harukichi Yamaguchi organized a collective of dockworkers in 1915, then gradually expanded the group’s activities to include the sale of “protection” to local businesses.
After running Yamaguchi-gumi (gumi is a corrupted form of kumi, meaning “group”) for a decade, Harukichi handed over the reins to Noboru, his 23-year-old son. Under Noboru’s leadership, Yamaguchi-gumi gained near-absolute control over traffic in Kobe’s central food market within five years, and he continued to rule the group for almost two decades.
Though Noboru had been effective at expanding Yamaguchi-gumi’s power, he died in 1942 after getting in a knife fight. At the time, the group’s membership stood at about 30.
In the years leading to Noboru’s death, a young man named Taoka Kazuo began developing a fearsome reputation in Kobe. Nicknamed “Kuma” (Bear), Taoka quit his apprenticeship at the docks after pummeling a superior and began hanging out with local ruffians.
After two stints in prison, Taoka began honing his organizational skills and formed a small outfit called Taoka-gumi. His leadership was so effective that he was invited to become the third leader of Yamaguchi-gumi in 1946, at the age of 33.
The total number of yakuza members peaked at 184,100 members, according to the National Police Agency. Taoka was largely responsible for Yamaguchi-gumi’s outstanding growth during this time. Over his 35-year reign, the group became the largest crime syndicate in Japan.
Yamaguchi-gumi engaged in illegal activities, like extortion, as well as legal ventures such as film production, finance and security services for the nuclear industry. In 1966, the Japanese government indicted Taoka on blackmail and five other charges. He was convicted after a long legal battle, but died of a heart attack in 1981, just months before he was to be sentenced.
Japan enacted laws intended to curb violent activities amongst organized crime members. Until then, Yamaguchi-gumi and other yakuza were regulated, but not banned, by police. The new “anti-Boryokudan” laws were intended to crack down on “any organization that is likely to help its members to collectively and habitually commit illegal acts of violence.”
The laws resulted in a reduction of violent activities by Yamaguchi-gumi and other yakuza, and after their passage, the total number of yakuza members in Japan dwindled to around 80,000 and remained there for roughly two decades.
On its 100-year anniversary, Yamaguchi-gumi fractured. Thousands of members of the group split off from the organization to form a rival syndicate, sparking fears of a gang war in central Japan. The schism was caused in part by police crackdowns, which have increased in recent years and choked the group’s revenue points.
Yet even after the split, Yamaguchi-gumi claimed 23,400 members, or almost five times that of the American Mafia at its peak, and its estimated net worth in 2014 was about $80 billion — compared with just $3 billion for the largest Mexican drug cartel.