Thousands of Yamaguchi-gumi members form new crime organisation at weekend after being kicked out for disloyalty
Shinobu Tsukasa, leader of Japan’s largest ‘yakuza’ gang the Yamaguchi-gumi, at Kobe station after being released from prison. Photograph: The Asahi Shimbun/via Getty Images
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
Rebel gangsters from Japan’s biggest organised crime group have formed abreakaway group, in a rare schism that police have warned could lead to violent conflict between rival mobs.
Thousands of members of the Yamaguchi-gumi officially formed a new gang at the weekend, Japanese media reports said on Monday, after they were expelled for disloyalty towards the parent group’s boss, Shinobu Tsukasa.
Japanese media said the new group would be led by Kunio Inoue, the 67-year-old head of the Yamaken-gumi, a gang with about 2,000 members that is also based in the western port city of Kobe.
Kyodo News said the new gang would call itself the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi and continue to use the gang’s logo – moves likely to heighten discord between the two groups.
The new organisation will have about 3,000 members – far fewer than the Yamaguchi-gumi, whose membership totals about 23,400, accounting for just under half of Japan’s gangster population.
Founded in Kobe by a former fisherman in 1915, the Yamaguchi-gumi now operates in all but three of Japan’s 47 prefectures. It is highly dependent on traditional cash cows such as drug trafficking, loan sharking and protection rackets, but in recent years it has engaged in financial scams and other white-collar crime.
Last year, Fortune magazine said the organisation was worth $80bn (£32bn), making it the wealthiest organised crime group in the world. By contrast, Sinaloa, Mexico’s largest drug cartel, was worth $3bn.
Rumours last month that the Yamaguchi-gumi was to mark its 100th anniversary by severing ties with 13 of its 72 factions prompted a police warning of a potentially violent power struggle, as former associates settle old scores and vie for territory.
Police are in a state of heightened alert, patrolling Yamaguchi-gumi offices and members’ homes and using gang sources to establish who is in and out of favour with the syndicate’s leadership.
The rift was fomented by criticism that Tsukasa,who became the Yamaguchi-gumi’s sixth leader a decade ago, was giving preferable treatment to members of the Kodo-kai, a Nagoya-based affiliate he founded in 1984.
The 73-year-old, who also goes by the name Kenichi Shinoda, was released from prison in April 2011 after serving a six-year sentence for firearms possession.
Under his leadership, the Yamaguchi-gumi has reportedly meted out harsh disciplinary measures against affiliated gang leaders who disobey orders or who fail to pay the monthly membership fee of about 1m yen (£5,500).
Tsukasa, who spent 13 years in prison for killing a rival with a samurai sword in the 1970s, also wants the Kodo-kai to expand its influence in Tokyo and other parts of eastern Japan, angering associates in the Yamaguchi-gumi’s traditional base in the west of the country.
Reports said he sparked anger after suggesting that the Yamaguchi-gumi’s headquarters should be moved from Kobe to Nagoya.
Police officials say they fear a repeat of the bloodshed that followed a similar split in 1984. Over the next three years, at least 25 people died, more than 70 were injured – including three with no gang ties – and police made hundreds of arrests.
While Japan’s underworld has been weakened by tougher anti-crime measures and the freezing of overseas assets, police have not ruled out another round of violence, while government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the split was an opportunity to further weaken the crime syndicates’ grip on Japanese society.
In a rare interview in 2011, Tsukasa claimed that anti-yakuza crackdowns could end up backfiring, since groups such as the Yamaguchi-gumi provided many young Japanese with a moral code.
“If the Yamaguchi-gumi were to disband, public order would probably worsen,” he told the Sankei newspaper. “I know it may be hard to believe, but I am protecting Yamaguchi-gumi in order to lose the violent groups.”
Japanese media sensed public attitudes were hardening towards the yakuza, in contrast to previous years in which gangs were tolerated as long as they did not target ordinary citizens.
“The split offers a good opportunity for police to tighten their crackdown on the syndicate to weaken its power,” the Asahi Shimbun said in an editorial. The paper said police should “take all possible measures, including arresting senior members, to put the group out of business once and for all”.