Photo Credit: Daily Beast
By Jake Howry, Columnist
For more than a year, the Japanese underworld has been engaged in the largest gang war the country has seen in more than three decades. On August 27, 2015, as Japan’s largest criminal organization—the Yamaguchi-gumi, which represents approximately 45% of all yakuza in the country—celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding, a serious faction splintered away to form a new organization, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi (KY).
The split may have been driven by tensions in the different communities that made up the main factions of the Yamaguchi-gumi. The Kobe faction, which is largely made up of former Yamaguchi affiliate gang the 4th Yamaken-gumi, recruited heavily from burakumin, ethnic Japanese who are supposedly the descendants of feudal-era outcastes and today remain heavily discriminated against. The dominant faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi, meanwhile, is made up of zainichi, Japan’s Korean minority. Conflict between the two groups came to a head as the Yamaken-gumi convinced several groups to splinter with them over disagreements regarding Yamaguchi boss Shinobu Tsukasa.[i] Tsukasa had consistently undermined the standing of Yamaken-gumi members within the syndicate, reducing their official headcount and planning to move the Yamaguchi headquarters out of Kobe.[ii] Yamaguchi-gumi leadership preempted the Yamaken-gumi split by purging a total of 13 gang affiliates, based largely in Hyogo Prefecture around Kobe and Awaji Island.[iii] Overnight, KY, under the leadership of former Yamaken-gumi boss Kunio Inoue, became the country’s third-largest yakuza syndicate. [iv] Since then, Japan’s tabloid press has been predicting “a sea of blood.”[v]
It is important to understand that yakuza membership is not illegal in Japan so much as it is regulated.[vi] Information such as a particular syndicate’s name, logo, and headquarters are publicly posted on the National Police Agency (NPA) website.[vii] This fact creates unusual dynamics when established organizations splinter, and it gave the Yamaguchi-gumi a distinct disadvantage in the gang war: because they are a recognized organized crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi are subjected to several legal restrictions that make it easy for police to raid their offices and arrest known members. Groups of five or more persons can even be banned from entering known gang headquarters. As a splinter group, KY spent several months without legal recognition and therefore remained unconstrained by these provisions. The NPA made an effort to correct this by fast-tracking the registration of KY in April.[viii] The eight-month turnaround represents a significant acceleration from the twenty months it took to register the Kyushu Seido-kai after the last yakuza schism in 2006. The accelerated pace highlights the severity of violence expected by the police.
Even so, the first months following the breakup were relatively quiet—that is, until October 26, when Toshiyuki Kawachi, an exiled Yamaguchi-gumi member believed to be affiliated with KY, was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The Osaka Police ruled the death a suicide.[ix] On November 15, Tatsuyuki Hishida, leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi Aiokai, was murdered by an intruder in his second home in Mie Prefecture. His hands and feet were bound and his head bashed in by an iron pipe.[x] Unlike the Kawachi case, Hishida’s death was not labeled a suicide.
Yakuza splits like this have a deadly precedent for Japanese officials. According to Hyogo Prefecture police, “The last major split in the Yamaguchi-gumi resulted in five years of violent disruptive gang warfare. We are on full alert in case history repeats itself. It would seem likely that it will.”[xi] This last major split occurred in 1984, when almost half the Yamaguchi-gumi seceded in what was known as the Ichiwa-kai rebellion. A half-decade of gang violence left 25 dead with bombings in the streets, trucks rammed into people’s homes, and more than 300 shootings.[xii] The violent nature of the deaths was shocking in Japan; for perspective, in a country of over 120 million, Japan experienced fewer than 10 gun-related homicides in 2015.[xiii]
On March 4, 2016, Taro Kono, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission (a police oversight body), stated, “There’s no denying that a gang war is taking place.” The next day, a truck rammed a KY office in Mito City, and multiple rounds were fired into the building. That same day, a truck smashed into a Yamaguchi-gumi office in Mie Prefecture. In Kobe, a KY executive had his car smashed. On Sunday, five shots were fired into a KY office in Ibaraki Prefecture.[xiv] Following this violent weekend, Japanese police set up a special headquarters to oversee efforts to stem the violence.[xv] The new unit established special divisions in 44 of Japan’s 47 prefectures.[xvi] In its first six months, the unit arrested over 1,000 yakuza members in an attempt to curtail the violence.[xvii]
Affiliated gangs across the country have engaged in tit-for-tat retaliations, including the killings of multiple oyabun, the heads of local affiliate gangs.[xviii] During one particularly intense two-week period, police reported 19 distinct incidents across 14 of Japan’s administrative districts.[xix]
After a May 14 meeting, peace talks between the Yamaguchi-gumi and KY broke down.[xx] The Kobe side offered two possible plans to end the conflict and reunite the syndicates: the Yamaguchi-gumi could either shift current head Shinobu Tsukasa to an honorary leadership position and put KY head Kunio Inoue in charge, or it could make Inoue the second-in-command of a consolidated gang.[xxi] Both options were flatly rejected.
Despite the fact that hostilities have continued with little end in sight, international press accounts have begun to cover the mass arrests of yakuza members as a victory for law enforcement, touting their role in avoiding an all-out war. Yet history suggests caution. The Ichiwa-kai rebellion continued for four years after a series of serious crackdowns that included US officials’ arrest of the former boss’s brother and chief financier. When the dust settled on the conflict, the Yamaguchi-gumi entered a renaissance period, increasing membership and financial activities both domestically and internationally.[xxii] It is still too early to tell how the current conflict will resolve itself, but past precedents suggest observers should not sound the death knell for Japan’s major organized crime syndicates just yet.
[i] “Yamaken-Gumi Boss to Head Yamaguchi-Gumi Rival,” Tokyo Reporter, September 7, 2015, http://www.tokyoreporter.com/2015/09/07/yamaken-gumi-boss-to-head-yamaguchi-gumi-rival-gang/.
[ii] Jake Adelstein, “Internal Divide Diminishes Yakuza’s Influence,” Jane’s Intelligence Review 28, no. 7 (n.d.).
[iii] Mark Schreiber, “Yakuza Infighting Puts Nation on Edge,” Japan Times, September 19, 2015, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/09/19/national/media-national/yakuza-infighting-puts-nation-edge/ – .VtM0RJOLRE4.
[iv] “Japanese Police Avert ‘All-out Yakuza War’, Arrest Nearly 1,000 Gangsters,” RT, September 2, 2016, https://www.rt.com/news/357967-yakuza-war-police-arrests/.
[v] Jake Adelstein, “Yakuza vs. Yakuza in a ‘Sea of Blood,’” The Daily Beast, March 8, 2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/03/08/yakuza-vs-yakuza-in-a-sea-of-blood.html.
[vi] Edward F. Reilly Jr., “Criminalizing Yakuza Membership: A Comparative Study of the Anti-Boryokudan Law,” Washington University Global Studies Law Review 13, no. 4 (2014): 801–28.
[viii] “Kobe Yamaguchi-Gumi Yakuza to Get Fast-Track Mob Designation amid Growing Violence,” Japan Times, April 12, 2016, sec. Crime & Legal, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/04/12/national/crime-legal/kobe-yamaguchi-gumi-yakuza-to-get-fast-track-mob-designation-amid-growing-violence/.
[ix] Jake Adelstein, “Yakuza vs. Yakuza in a ‘Sea of Blood.’”
[xii] David E. Kaplan and Eric Dubro, Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary (Berkley: University of California Press, 2003), 123; Jake Adelstein, “Yakuza vs. Yakuza in a ‘Sea of Blood.’”
[xiii] Jake Adelstein, “The Coming Yakuza War,” The Daily Beast, August 28, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/28/the-coming-yakuza-war.html.
[xiv] Jake Adelstein, “Yakuza vs. Yakuza in a ‘Sea of Blood.’”
[xv] Agence France Press, “Japanese Police Set up Unit to Stop Yakuza ‘Civil War,’” Daily Mail, March 7, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-3480174/Japanese-police-set-unit-stop-yakuza-civil-war.html.
[xvi] Jake Adelstein, “Yakuza vs. Yakuza in a ‘Sea of Blood.’”
[xvii] “Japanese Police Avert ‘All-out Yakuza War’, Arrest Nearly 1,000 Gangsters.”
[xviii] “Wakayama Cops Nab Yamaguchi-Gumi Members in Killing of Rival Boss,” Tokyo Reporter, October 29, 2016, sec. Crime, http://www.tokyoreporter.com/2016/10/29/wakayama-cops-nab-yamaguchi-gumi-member-in-killing-of-rival-boss/.
[xix] “Japan Police Form Unit to Combat Underworld’s ‘State of Confrontation,’” Tokyo Reporter, March 8, 2016, http://www.tokyoreporter.com/2016/03/08/japan-police-forms-unit-to-combat-underworlds-state-of-confrontation/.
[xx] “Yakuza Groups’ Peace Talks Failed before Mobster Gunned down,” The Ashai Shimbun, August 25, 2016, sec. Asia & Japan Watch, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201608250050.html.
[xxii] Kaplan and Dubro, Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, 122–3.