In the evening on August 21, in Kobe, a lone biker in a white, full-face helmet pulled up next to a car driven by an underboss of Japan’s biggest mob. The biker drew a gun and rapid-fired into the car.

The victim took three bullets, point-blank, before the hitman roared away. In a country of 122 million people where shootings for any year usually number in single digits, this was a very big bang.

Evidence indicates the hit was a yakuza birthday present, of sorts. And its timing was notable for another reason – last week marked the fifth year of a gang war that has riven Japan’s biggest criminal syndicate.

This means war

Hostilities started in 2015 when, on August 27, the Yamaguchi-gumi, the most powerful gang in Japan, split.

More than a dozen factions separated from the main group to form their own organization, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi. More was to come. In April 2017, another group, Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi – literally, “The Humanitarian Yamaguchi” – split from the rebel faction and began recruiting members from both sides.

The Yamaguchi-gumi remain the original and biggest. In numbers, they are followed by the Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi (the rebels) and the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi (the underdog rebels). Today, it’s gloves off, all against all.

Hostilities have been marked by beatings, knifings, trucks smashed into gang-owned establishments, Molotov cocktail barrages and kidnappings. At least one yakuza boss has been beaten to death, in his own home. However, since there have been no civilian casualties or other collateral damage, the gang war isn’t necessarily unwelcome to the constabulary.

“As long as the Yamaguchi-gumi thugs are warring amongst each other, I don’t see much of a downside,” an organized crime control division detective in Kanagawa Prefecture told Asia Times. “It just reduces the number of yakuza in the end, and it weakens the power of the groups. They’re throttling their own throats.”

Japan’s ‘official’ gangsters

Remarkably the yakuza, a general term covering 22 recognized criminal gangs in Japan, exist legally. Claiming to be humanitarian brotherhoods – literally, like boy scouts – they have office buildings, corporate logos, business cards and fan magazines.

The government knows who the top members are, and while there are many laws restricting the activities of yakuza, their existence itself isn’t illegal. Police call them bouryokudan, or violent groups.

The yakuza make money via racketeering, extortion, blackmail, evictions, loan sharking, bid-rigging, financial fraud – and also legitimate enterprises such as construction and labor dispatch.

Yakuza front companies often supply workers to the nuclear industry, one reason it’s hard to stamp them out – the pro-nuclear Shinzo Abe administration considers them a necessary evil.

One feature that has gained them some social acceptance is that they forbid their members from engaging in crimes like common theft, robbery and sexual assault. This means that, ironically, the mobsters play a part in keeping street-crime down. A purse-snatcher in a yakuza neighborhood has a dismal professional outlook.

But in recent years, relentless law enforcement, the application of organized crime exclusionary ordinances and civilian pressure have put many yakuza out of business. Today the National Police Agency estimates the current membership of all gangs nationwide at less than 34,000. That is a big change. In 2010, the number was closer to 80,000.

The mob of mobs – and sub-mobs

Of the 22 groups, the Yamaguchi-gumi, founded in 1915 in Kobe, is still the most powerful gang. At its peak, membership numbered more than 40,000 and its influence extended from the entertainment industry to the stock market. The economist Robert Feldman once called them Japan’s second-largest private equity group.

Although the Yamaguchi-gumi has been in existence for more than 100 years, it has never been a happy family. The group consisted of over 80 rival factions, with the four most powerful factions being the Kodo-Kai, which now controls the Yamaguchi-gumi, and the Yamaken-gumi, which split from the Yamaguchi-gumi to form the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.

The other two powerful factions were Goto-gumi, headed by financial genius and sociopath Tadamasa Goto, who was famous for overseeing brutal attacks on gang rivals and civilians, including the popular film director Itami Juzo. Then there was the Takumi-gumi, well-known for its prowess in financial crime, earning the group hundreds of millions of dollars.

A guide to the  gang war
Organization (members) Leader Nickname Founding Main Supporting Factions
Yamaguchi-gumi

9,500

Shinobu Tsukasa The Dapper Don 1915 Kodo-Kai
Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi

3,400

Kunio Inoue The Professor 2015 Yamaken-Gumi

Takukumi-Gumi

Former Goto-Gumi

Ninkyo Yamaguchigumi

800 (?)

Yoshinori Oda The Boy Scout 2017 Yamaguchi-gumi

Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi

 

Tailored suits, iron fists

The Yamaguchi-gumi is now headed by their sixth-generation leader, Kenichi Shinoda, more popularly known by his gang moniker, “Shinobu Tsukasa.”  Tsukasa – like many a filmic gangster – is a dandy, with a well-trimmed mustache and a penchant for Italian suits and fedoras.

But “The Dapper Don” is a stern disciplinarian who has tried to enforce a strict policy forbidding the selling of drugs, or their use by members. This has created major frictions, especially among factions which made huge earnings from narcotics.

And since he took office on August 27, 2005 – exactly 10 years before the schism – there has been grumbling that the Kodo-kai faction was getting favorable treatment above all other groups. In addition, the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters demanded increasingly high franchise fees be paid to the head of the organization.

Former Yamaguchi-gumi boss Satoru Takegaki, who served under the fourth-generation leader of the gang, told Asia Times: “Yakuza of old were about honor, not money. But in recent years, it seemed like you could you only rise up the ladder if you paid your way up. People were unhappy.”

However, the Yamaguchi-gumi’s real problems started while Tsukasa was in prison on gun-related charges. His hardcase number two, the perpetually squinting and scowling Kiyoshi Takayama – one of the most feared mobsters in the underworld – ruled the gang with an iron fist. Takayama had zero tolerance for insolence.

Mob restructuring

In October of 2008, under Takayama’s rule and with the approval of the Takumi-gumi, powerful underboss Tadamasa Goto was expelled from the gang for insubordination, disloyalty and unethical behavior. Several other top crime bosses were also summarily booted out.

This mass restructuring in the yakuza world was known as “The Goto Shock.” Related resentments simmered for years.

By the summer of 2015, Yukio Inoue, the boss of the Yamaken-gumi faction, consolidated support, including the backing of the wealthy Takumi-gumi, and launched the Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi.

This being Japan, when the group held their opening ceremony, police guarded their office building from attacks by the Yamaguchi-gumi. That signals Inoue’s rebellion had the tacit approval of law enforcers, who saw a split in the Yamaguchi-gumi as a potential plus.

With his specs and balding head, Inoue looks more like an academic than a gangster, hence his nickname, “The Professor.” He is also frugal, more likely to buy a discount suit than visit an Italian tailor. But though he lacks the charisma of Tsukasa, he does inspire loyalty.

His rebellion was financed with cash from the high-profile Goto, who was then living in exile, having created a new fiefdom in Cambodia. The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi then restored to power several crime bosses who had been axed.

The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi claimed to embody “the true spirit” of the Yamaguchi-gumi – to “protect the weak and fight the strong.” Many who joined the rebel group would be disappointed with the reality.

The body count mounts

One was Yoshinori Oda. Formerly Inoue’s right-hand man, he split off in April 2017 to start his own gang, Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi, and held a press conference. Oda is an iconoclastic yakuza who has raised eyebrows by openly talking about his Korean heritage.

Oda promised to turn the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi into a true humanitarian organization that would provide security services, maintain public order and uphold “chivalrous” values. In his press conference, Oda, known as “The Boy Scout,” criticized both the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.

This did not sit well with his former boss.

A hitman for the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi attacked Oda as he left his house in Kobe on September 1, 2017. In the fight that ensued, the assassin shot and killed Oda’s bodyguard, Yuhiro Kusumoto. The bodyguard went out with style. His last words were: “If you think you can hit me, go ahead and shoot!”

With one main gang and two splittist gangs engaged in open hostilities, violence mounted. According to a source in the National Police Agency, there have been more than 200 clashes between the three groups, including seven suspected murders between August 2015 and August 2019.

A bloody birthday present

Even so, there have been intermittent periods of peace, and this year has been punctuated by erratic violence. On March 20, a 36-year-old member of the Yamaguchi-gumi was stabbed multiple times in the gut in a ramen shop in Yokohama. He died within hours.

In an apparent act of retaliation, a 65-year old Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi boss was stabbed in the shoulder and backside on April 18. He survived.

Hostilities were put on hold when Japanese police put the yakuza on notice that any violence prior to and directly after the G-20 Summit in Osaka. from June 28 to June 29, would result in harsh crackdowns.

The gangs played ball and laid low during Osaka’s moment in the global spotlight. Post-summit, things heated up quickly.

On August 20 in Nagano Prefecture, a boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai – the ruling faction of the uber mob – was snatched off the street, taken to the mountains and beaten severely. His left leg, left arm and several fingers were broken.

The following evening – August 21 – in Kobe, another Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai gangster, Chiho Kagaya, was parking his car near the gang offices when a motorcyclist approached from behind. According to police sources, video camera footage showed the motorcycle-born hitman approach the car, ride up alongside and fire six rapid shots into the car before roaring off.

Despite three gunshot wounds inflicted at point-blank range, the victim lived.

The attack came the day before the August 22 birthday of Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi boss Inoue. In yakuza terms, the shooting would be a considered a fine birthday homage – far better than a Hallmark card.

Needless to say, bloody vengeance was anticipated in the coming weeks.

A war without winners

A mid-level Yamaguchi-gumi boss said that gang war was a no-win situation for everyone.

“The crackdowns in recent years have been bad for business everywhere,” he lamented. “Every time there’s violence, the police have another excuse to bust heads and make arrests. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”

He also pointed out that while the three factions are ostensibly at war, the split has reduced some gangs to mere handfuls, resulting in strange alliances. “There are Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi members sharing office space with Ninkyo guys. I can’t afford to get into hostilities with the Kobe boys. We are going to have to prosper together or fall together.”

Kiyoshi Takayama, who ruled the Yamaguchi-gumi while Tsukasa was in jail, and who has been serving time for extortion since 2013, is due to be released in October this year. It is uncertain what his return will mean in the war, but in sheer numbers the Yamaguchi-gumi appears to be winning. It has 9,500 members compared with the 3,400-strong Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.

A Yamaguchi-gumi associate told Asia Times: “The Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi are likely to rejoin the parent organization, when all is said and done. The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi are the first rebels, and in our world, no matter what the circumstances, defying the oyabun (godfather), is a cardinal sin. It should have never happened. They aren’t going to win this war by getting more members. They only way they stand to win is by getting more bullets.”

In the meantime, unless one of those bullets go astray and pots a civilian, police are watching the war of attrition play out and making related arrests as and when.

If it continues on its bloody course, the police – and the public – may end up the real winners.