A century after its founding, the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest and most notorious crime syndicate, appears to have expelled 13 of its approximately 70 affiliated gang leaders Tuesday, creating local fears of related gang violence.

The move, according to police and media reports, has been in the works for some time and is the result of a power struggle between affiliated gangs, located mostly in the Kansai region, and the Nagoya-based gang Kodo-kai, from which the sixth don of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Kenichi Shinoda, and the No. 2, Kiyoshi Takayama, hail.

Of 13 gang leaders believed to have been kicked out, five were reportedly dissociated (zetsuen) with the Yamaguchi-gumi, and another eight excommunicated (hamon). They reportedly include the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s largest affiliated gang, the Kobe-based Yamaken-gumi, which boasts an estimated 2,000 core members, as well as the head of the Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture-based Masaki-gumi. Fukui-based anti-nuclear activists believe the Masaki-gumi was once one of the wealthier affiliates due to its connections to local nuclear power plants.

Of the 13 gangs whose leaders were expunged, 10 are based in Osaka, Hyogo Prefecture (including Kobe), or Kyoto, leading to speculation the remaining Yamaguchi-gumi affiliated gangs might relocate to Nagoya, home of the Kodo-kai.

This is not the first time the Yamaguchi-gumi, which was founded in 1915, has split. In 1984, a splinter group called Ichiwa-kai, which was unhappy with then top gang leader Masahisa Takenaka, broke away. The result was gun violence in the streets of Kobe and elsewhere that lasted nearly two years, led to the assassination of Takenaka in early 1985, and left 25 gang members dead and scores of innocent bystanders wounded.

“There are concerns about outbreaks of violence, depending on the situation, and we’ll quickly arrest anyone engaged in any illegal activity,” Hyogo police official Ichiro Kume told reporters on Aug. 31, when reports of the expulsions appeared.

However, while fears of renewed violence remain, today’s yakuza are operating in a much stricter legal environment than was the case in the 1980s. Laws to combat organized crime have been greatly stiffened, starting with the basic anti-gang law in 1991. In 2012, it was revised to give police more authority to crack down on specific gangs like the Yamaguchi-gumi, and to take actions such as making arrests if gang members open new offices or gather in groups of five or more.

But the larger question that has many worried is how much time it might take to formally designate any new splinter group as a violent gang.

To be officially designated as a violent gang that is subject to strict police surveillance and legal controls, an organization must be shown to be using the gang’s power to collect money, consist of gang members who have criminal records and be organized in a pyramid structure with bosses and subordinates.

To determine that an organization meets all three criteria can take months, if not years. When the Fukuoka-based Kyushu Seido-kai split from the Dojin-kai in 2006, it took around 18 months for it to be officially designated as a violent gang.

Before Tuesday, the National Policy Agency estimated there were about 23,400 Yamaguchi-gumi affiliated gang members in 44 prefectures, including about 10,300 core members and 13,100 associate members.

A total of 21 gangs with an estimated 53,500 members, as of April, are designated violent gangs. The Yamaguchi-gumi has about 44 percent of that total.

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