Japan’s Biggest Mob Group Splits Under Money, Police Pressure


Police fear gang war in Japan as factions break away from powerful Yamaguchi-gumi yakuza
The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest and most powerful yakuza group, is undergoing a major split on its 100th anniversary. Photo: Getty Images
By
ALEXANDER MARTIN
TOKYO—The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest and most powerfulyakuza crime syndicate, is undergoing a major split on its 100th anniversary after years of police crackdowns and financial strains, raising fears of a bloody gang war.
News broke in late August that groups within the Yamaguchi-gumi were parting ways with its sixth-generation don. The result is the creation of a rival syndicate, also based in central Japan.
Experts say the split reflects the harsher environment facing the yakuza following the adoption of anti-gang laws that have choked off revenues. Gang members are finding it harder to make money from traditional sources like protection rackets.
“Clampdowns against the yakuza have been enforced at all points, making it increasingly difficult for them to rack up profits,” saidYoshiaki Shinozaki, an attorney with decades of experience fighting organized crime.
The Yamaguchi-gumi was founded in Kobe in 1915 by Harukichi Yamaguchi as an association of dockworkers. It became the largest yakuza under Kazuo Taoka, the charismatic third don dubbed “the bear” for clawing his opponent’s eyes during brawls.
In 1991, the new boss of a Tokyo area yakuza syndicate reads aloud his pledge of allegiance to the “family,” country and Amaterasu, the sun goddess, during a succession ceremony witnessed by some 70 underworld bosses. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
During Mr. Taoka’s reign, from 1946 to his death in 1981, the Yamaguchi-gumi expanded its membership, developed ties with show business and spread into political and financial circles.
Such exploits furnished material for countless yakuza movies over the years, some of which implicitly celebrated the gangsters as upholders of traditional Japanese values of loyalty and sacrifice. Even today, the existence of yakuza groups isn’t technically illegal. They have offices as well as fan magazines dedicated to their underworld endeavors.
But public attitudes toward the yakuza hardened over the years. Racketeers known as sokaiya were especially feared by corporate Japan for extorting money by threatening to expose secrets at annual shareholders meetings. In 1997, the former chairman of Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank (now part of Mizuho Financial Group) committed suicide after the bank was found to have lent tens of millions of dollars to a sokaiya leader.
Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga described the signs of recent disorder in the Yamaguchi-gumi as an opportunity to weaken the groups.
Ichiro Kume, police chief of the prefecture that includes Kobe, said authorities would seek to undermine the groups “with strategic and focused crackdowns on both their human resources and funding sources.”
Atsushi Mizoguchi, a nonfiction writer considered one of Japan’s foremost experts on organized crime, said two main factors are behind the rift in the Yamaguchi-gumi: One is resentment among some groups about dues that are funneled up to the leadership.
The other is speculation that the 73-year-old don Kenichi Shinoda,also known by the alias Shinobu Tsukasa, plans to cement the clout of his faction, the Nagoya-based Kodo-kai, by having close aides from the group succeed him.
One Yamaguchi-gumi member said in an interview that the organization announced internally in late August that bosses from 13 of the 72 major groups had been expelled or suspended. Among them was the Kobe-based Yamaken-gumi, a powerful gang that produced Mr. Shinoda’s now-deceased predecessor as godfather.
The member described the groups that broke away as “seasoned and hard-bitten with access to substantial funds.” Dubbed the “Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi,” they have decided on its new leadership structure, he said, adding that both groups are working to woo members.
Talk of moving the Yamaguchi-gumi’s headquarters from its traditional base in Kobe to Nagoya also may not have gone down well with Yamaken-gumi and other groups based in and around Kobe, he said.
This isn’t the first time the Yamaguchi-gumi faced internal strife. A rebellion in 1984 led to a five-year, nationwide gang war that resulted in the deaths of nearly 30 yakuza members and dozens of injuries, including some non-gang members.
Hiroyuki Uematsu, a former police detective who handled organized crime, said the latest split could also turn violent. “A split will mean less revenue for the Yamaguchi-gumi, and the yakuza by nature won't tolerate losing face like this,” he said.
A 1992 law which later underwent revisions criminalized many yakuza activities and held bosses legally responsible for the actions of gang members. Since 2011, firms knowingly doing business with gangsters face warnings at first, with repeat offenders facing fines and jail terms of up to a year.
U.S. authorities have joined the clampdown, freezing American assets controlled by the Yamaguchi-gumi and two of its leaders in 2012.
From left to right, Mitsuru Ono, Kazuo Taoka, Koji Tsuruta, with their arms around each other's shoulders in 1952, from the autobiography of Kazuo Taoka, "the third don of Yamaguchi-gumi.' PHOTO: TOKUMASHOTEN
In 2013, the core banking unit of Mizuho Financial Group Inc. was told by Japan’s financial watchdog to improve its operations, and its chairman resigned after it emerged that the bank had made shady loans to criminal groups.
The Yamaguchi-gumi still boasts some 23,000 core and associate members, around 44% of all yakuza in Japan, according to police estimates. But membership has been shrinking along with an overall decline in yakuza groups, and Mr. Shinoda’s control has grown shakier.
“The prolonged economic stagnation steadily chipped away at the yakuza’s financial clout,” said Mr. Mizoguchi, the writer.
The last police estimate on yakuza revenue dates back to 1989, and placed the figure at ¥1.3 trillion, or a little more than $10 billion at today’s exchange rates. Mr. Mizoguchi said the figure today probably wasn’t much higher and might be even lower, although some yakuza have gotten more involved in sophisticated white-collar crimes and financial scams.
Mr. Shinoda assumed his role as don of the Yamaguchi-gumi in 2005. He soon began serving a six-year sentence for gun possession, and was released in 2011. In a rare interview he gave to the Sankei newspaper that year, he criticized local anti-yakuza ordinances as discriminatory and said the Yamaguchi-gumi was capable of evolving and going deeper underground as clampdowns intensified.

Write to Alexander Martin at alexander.martin@wsj.com