This year will see the observance of various centennials, including the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles; the Second Battle of Ypres; and the sinking of the RMS Lusitania with the loss of 1,198 lives.

The war in Europe had a favorable impact on the Tokyo stock market, setting off what was called the Taisen Keiki (the “Great War boom,” also known as the “Taisho Bubble”), a business boom that was to last until the crash of March 1920.

It was also in 1915 that Harukichi Yamaguchi, a former fisherman from Awaji Island, founded the organization that bears his name: Yamaguchi-gumi.

From the start of 2015, Shukan Taishu has begun serializing a history of the gang titled “Yamaguchi-gumi, Chi to gekito no hyakunen shi” (“A hundred-year history of blood and fierce battles”).

Initially Yamaguchi’s small outfit oversaw loading and shipping operations around the Kobe docks. It then began branching out, selling “protection” services to businesses in the port city.

After 10 years of operation, Harukichi ceded control of the group to his son Noboru. Although just 23 years old, Noboru had already spent nearly a decade in rough company, and as the gang’s second-generation head, he managed, over the next half decade, to secure a virtual monopoly on traffic in Kobe’s central food market.

The man responsible for turning the gang into Japan’s largest criminal syndicate, Kazuo Taoka, was only two years old when it came into existence. A native of Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku who was orphaned at a young age, Taoka received a basic education and then moved to Kobe, where he was apprenticed to work in the Kawasaki shipbuilding yard. He quit after delivering a beating to his supervisor, and began hanging out with local toughs.

Muscular and with the reputation of being a ferocious fighter, Taoka was nicknamed “Kuma” (Bear) or “Taoka the Cutter” by the older members.

Not long after Taoka’s discharge from Kobe Prison after serving a one-year term for aggravated assault, he took part in battles with a breakaway member of the gang named Onaga, in which he killed the latter’s younger brother with a Japanese sword. This time he was sentenced to an eight-year term, from February 1937.

While Taoka was incarcerated, gang boss Noboru Yamaguchi continued getting into scraps. In the spring of 1940 he sustained serious injuries in a turf war with the forerunner of the Goda Ikka gang while in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. Noboru was reportedly spared a fatal knife injury by a thick roll of currency stashed in his haramaki (belly band); but he never recovered from his wounds, dying in October 1942 at the age of 41 and leaving the Yamaguchi-gumi without an effective head.

After serving 6 ½ years, Taoka gained early release during an imperial amnesty in July 1943, In May 1944 he married Fumiko Fukayama, and bided his time until the war’s end.

Marriage and fatherhood proved a stabilizing influence on Taoka, and the former street brawler learned to rely more on organizational skills. Within weeks after the end of the war, he’d formed his own small group, the “Taoka-gumi,” and so effectively demonstrated his leadership acumen that the following autumn he was invited, at age 33, to become the Yamaguchi-gumi’s third oyabun (leader) — a post that had remained vacant since Noboru Yamaguchi’s death in 1942.

At the time of Taoka’s takeover, the group numbered around 30 men; when he died of heart failure 35 years later, it had expanded to become Japan’s largest underworld syndicate, which it remains to this day. According to National Police Agency statistics, at the end of 2012, Yamaguchi-gumi members and affiliates numbered 27,700, accounting for 43.8 percent of the total membership of designated crime groups.

Coverage of the gang’s centennial has been confined mainly to the aforementioned series appearing in Shukan Taishu and to two other magazines, Asahi Geino and Shukan Jitsuwa. While it would be exaggerating to label these three as yakuza “fanzines,” their issues almost invariably contain recent news or gossip on gang activities.

The magazines and the gangs they cover have developed a wonderfully symbiotic relationship — like the Egyptian plovers that fly into the mouths of crocodiles to remove morsels of food — and while this writer has no way of verifying the accuracy of their reportage, he has no reason to disbelieve it either.

In Asahi Geino’s first issue of the new year, an article appeared titled “Yamaguchi-gumi’s top 10 news stories of 2014.” The article noted that during the past year a not inconsiderable 12 heads of affiliated gangs had been arrested, and the No. 2 man in the hierarchy, 67-year-old Kiyoshi Takayama, had recently begun serving a prison sentence for extorting ¥40 million from a construction firm in Kyoto.

The magazine added that during the year that just ended, Yamaguchi-gumi has maintained a policy of “peace diplomacy” with syndicates in east Japan.

Shukan Jitsuwa (Jan. 22) meanwhile reported on how the Kobe-based gang feted the year of its centennial with traditional activities, including the pounding of some 900 kg of mochi (glutinous rice) for holiday consumption and marching to the nearby Kobe Gokoku Shrine for hatsumode (first shrine visit of the new year).

Even though the gang in recent years abandoned the holding of a New Year’s open house in favor of limiting guests to special invitees, the turnout was said to have been so large, the visitors had to be split into four separate shifts.

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