KOBE — Today, at its headquarters in an exclusive Kobe neighborhood, Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest and most well-known underworld syndicate, will mark its 10th anniversary under the leadership of fifth don Yoshinori Watanabe.
“It’s likely to be a quiet celebration,” said Osaka lawyer Yukio Yamanouchi, once a legal adviser to the gang. “It will certainly not be the huge affair reminiscent of his accession ceremony at a local shrine, which drew not only the leaders of nearly 100 affiliated gangs from around the nation but rival gang leaders as well.”
Unlike previous dons, police and yakuza-watchers say Watanabe is noted for his low-key leadership.
Although the assassination of senior Yamaguchi-gumi leader Masaru Takumi in August 1997 and subsequent shootings around the nation have kept the gang in the headlines, veteran reporters, police and lawyers who represent the gang’s victims all agree things these days are relatively quiet.
“Compared with 15 or 20 years ago, the yakuza in general are less visible. Part of this is due to the Antigang Law, which came into effect in 1992. It has made life especially difficult for the Yamaguchi-gumi,” said a veteran journalist, speaking anonymously, who has covered Yamaguchi-gumi for nearly three decades.
“As a result, Watanabe himself has gone out of his way to avoid publicity.”
Little is known about Watanabe personally.
According to police records, he was born in Tochigi Prefecture in 1941, one of six children. He graduated from junior high school in Tochigi and then went to Tokyo.
There, he eventually fell in with Yamaken-gumi, one of the highest-ranking gangs in the Yamaguchi hierarchy.
In 1961, during a war with a rival gang, Watanabe was charged with weapons possession and served just over a year in prison. During the so-called Osaka gang wars in the mid-1970s, he was arrested once again for weapons possession.
After his release, he continued to gain more power, becoming leader of Yamaken-gumi in 1982 and moving up the ranks within Yamaguchi-gumi.
Today, Watanabe leads a reclusive lifestyle. He gives no interviews and makes no public statements. Police say he stays clear of daily organizational matters, which are left to those underneath him.
Those who know him personally say Watanabe’s main passion is sports.
“Watanabe is an excellent golfer, lifts weights and jogs. He also enjoys reading Chinese history,” the journalist said.
The actual organizational structure of Yamaguchi-gumi is complex. But both police and journalists who follow the gang have detailed lists of those at the upper levels.
Watanabe is flanked by two advisers, Kazuo Nakanishi and Otomatsu Konishi, both of whom once challenged him for the leadership role.
Below Watanabe are a group of 11 “Privy Council” members. These are leaders of senior affiliated gangs, based mostly in the Kansai region, who set policy for Yamaguchi-gumi as a whole. They usually meet twice a month.
The Privy Council is headed by Saizou Kishimoto, Yamaguchi-gumi’s general affairs chief and de facto second in command. Kishimoto has one of the more unusual personal histories among senior gang leaders.
Just before the end of World War II, he was selected for kamikaze pilot training. After Japan’s surrender, he was a Kobe city bureaucrat before quitting and joining the underworld.
On the fifth of each month, a fleet of black Mercedes and BMWs with tinted windows and minibuses pulls up to Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters.
These monthly general meetings bring together the 113 affiliated gang leaders from around Japan who gather to hear the Privy Council’s decisions.
Watanabe does not attend these meetings, sending his message through Kishimoto, who consults with him after the twice-monthly Privy Council meeting.
The general meeting usually lasts only about 10 to 15 minutes. No one is allowed to voice objections. Those gang leaders who came from Hokkaido or Kyushu leave immediately afterward to catch their planes, while the rest slowly filter out.
As they enter and leave Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters, Hyogo Prefectural Police stand outside with a flowchart that includes each affiliated gang leader’s name, the name of their gang and the date they officially joined Yamaguchi-gumi.
While Kishimoto’s announcement might focus on general matters or grand policy, much of the concern the gang leaders have is related to practical matters like money.
“Financing the organization is Yamaguchi-gumi’s biggest headache these days. Lower-level gang members have to come up with at least 700,000 yen a month for senior gang leaders,” said Shin Kitayoshi of the Osaka Antigang Center.
Since the advent of the Antigang Law, though, it has become increasingly difficult for senior Yamaguchi-gumi leaders to get money by traditional means, Kitayoshi said.
Under the new law, 15 specific categories of activities that the mob traditionally relied on for income are illegal. These include everything from traditional extortion efforts, such as payment of protection money, to petty scams like forcing small businesses to buy plants and entertainment equipment.
The law also makes it easier for police to issue cease-and-desist orders for such activities and to raid gang offices. In 1997, police issued 1,737 discontinuance orders.
Yamaguchi-gumi received 740 citations, or about 43 percent of the total. Most of these were for extortion activities.
Because of the bad economy, Yamaguchi-gumi-affiliated gangs have found one area to be especially lucrative of late: swindling creditors of bankrupt companies.
“What we’re now seeing is a decrease in traditional extortion activities, but an increase in the number of incidents where yakuza try to muscle in and take over the assets of companies that have gone bankrupt,” said Tatsuya Kimura, an Osaka lawyer who has spent nearly 20 years representing victims of yakuza extortion.
Tougher laws have led to greater numbers of arrests.
According to the National Police Agency’s 1998 white paper, total arrests of Yamaguchi-gumi-affiliated members has steadily increased over the past decade, rising from around 11,200 in 1989 to about 14,700 in 1997, or 40 percent of all gang-related arrests.
Yet despite the crackdowns and detailed police knowledge, the exact number of Yamaguchi-gumi-affiliated members is unknown.
Official reports say there were about 17,500 members as of the end of 1998. But others who follow the gang say the true number is probably over 30,000.
The largest affiliated gang is Watanabe’s old gang, Yamaken-gumi, which is believed to have around 6,000 members. But at the lowest levels, a gang might consist of only four or five members.
“As gangs at the lower levels are usually small, always breaking up, merging, expanding or changing their names, it’s impossible to get an exact figure of affiliated gang members,” Kitayoshi said.
At the upper levels, things have remained relatively stable over the past decade, and most of the senior members of Yamaguchi-gumi who were with Watanabe when he became fifth don remain.
The notable exception is, of course, Masaru Takumi, who was, before his slaying, widely considered a possible successor to Watanabe.
Since his assassination, there has been much speculation among both police and journalists that Watanabe has become stronger. But most yakuza watchers believe there will be little change in the immediate future.
“Yamaguchi-gumi will always be around in one form or another,” Kimura said. “But it is likely to continue to move further underground. Some activities, such as the adult film business, continue to provide lots of money.
“But the new law, and changing public attitudes, have forced the gang to keep quiet. In a way, that’s even more dangerous.”