Japan police expect bloody violence as biggest yakuza syndicate set to split

© Kim Kyung-Hoon
War is imminent in the Japanese gang world, police say, as Yamaguchi-gumi – the largest yakuza conglomerate – is facing a split. Authorities are awaiting an outbreak of bloody violence, as the syndicate boasts some 43 percent of all Japan’s gang members.

To blame are differences in loyalties to the gang’s 73-year-old boss, Shinobu Tsukasa, who became the country’s most powerful crime lord in 2005, the Japan Times reports.

Reports indicate that he angered some of the gangs in the syndicate by giving preferential treatment to certain branches, as well as harboring ambitions of expanding into new territory, straying outside of the syndicate’s home turf. Tsukasa, who also goes by the name Kenichi Shinoda, is the syndicate’s sixth-generation don.

Twelve of the more than 30 groups now threaten to leave and form their own syndicate, according to the Japan Times’ police sources. This is putting police on very high alert, as the gang – now 100 years old - is quite a large organization. Numbering 10,300 members at the end of 2014, it also comprises 23,400 ‘quasi’-members. The gang’s influence is felt everywhere.

Yamaguchi-gumi is also extremely rich, with Fortune magazine reporting in 2014 that its revenues had reached $80 billion, making it the wealthiest crime syndicate in the world.

“The police are reportedly very concerned, and are taking measures to pre-empt any problems that might happen this time around,” Brett Bull with the Tokyo Reporter wrote.

The organization, founded in 1915 and headquartered in Kobe, has faced a schism before.

In 1985, one major segment split from it, causing a massive conflict with some 293 violent clashes and revenge killings. Now, the western-Japanese gang, under Tsukasa, is harboring ambitions of expanding into Tokyo and beyond, through an affiliate the crime lord co-created in 1984 called the Kodo-kai. Unlike 30 years ago, the specter of violence could potentially be larger, with the 12 breakaway gangs going up against another 20, who are loyal to Tsukasa.

Kenichi Shinoda, the boss of Japan's largest "yakuza" gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi © JIJI PRESS

The 1980s are known in Japan as the ‘bubble’ period of the yakuza, when membership (not illegal, under Japanese law) was attractive. But a faltering economy and increased police crackdowns are leading to increased rifts and a disinterest in joining.

“Simply put, there is more money to be made in Tokyo, and the Yamaguchi-gumi’s shift in emphasis towards the Kodo-kai and Tokyo has caused frustration among gang members in western Japan,” Bull writes.

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As a result of the economic situation, 2013 statistics reported a huge slump in yakuza membership – 3,000 from the previous year, putting the total at some 60,000 members.

The Japanese police until recently have tolerated the traditional gang, as its influence spread to many an industry – including even the companies tasked with hiring workers for the Fukushima cleanup, following the 2011 radioactive disaster.

Front companies acting as respectable businesses have also been a result of increased police attention, as the yakuza moved away from its more traditional avenues – drug money, extortion, white-collar crime, prostitution and human trafficking.

This fact has caused ripples, with the US freezing Yamaguchi-gumi’s Western financial assets in 2012.

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In 2011, Tsukasa had been released from prison, where he served six years for firearms possession. In a television interview, he then talked of how the existence of the Yamaguchi-gumi was having a positive effect on young people’s moral code.

“If Yamaguchi-gumi were to disband, public order would probably worsen,” he said then, according to the Sankei newspaper, as cited by the Wall Street Journal Japan.

He had also served 13 years in the 1970s for killing a rival with a samurai sword.

However, despite fears that violence may once again erupt, it’s not all bad news for the police. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also said on Friday that this could be an opportunity for the government and law enforcement to weaken the yakuza.