Around the start of this year, the weekly magazines — Shukan Taishu, Asahi Geino and Shukan Jitsuwa in particular — were brimming with articles feting the centennial anniversary of the Yamaguchi-gumi, which had gone from being a small group of tough guys on the Kobe waterfront in 1915 to Japan’s largest designated criminal syndicate, with an estimated 23,000 members.

Nine months later, the gang is back in the news, this time with stories about its big breakup.

On Aug. 27, a total of 13 gang affiliates, based in Kobe, Awaji Island and other cities in Hyogo Prefecture, as well as Fukui, Okayama, Kyoto and Kumamoto, were ordered purged from the main organization, either by zetsuen (severing of ties) or hamon (excommunication).

A perusal of back issues of the aforementioned magazines, however, showed they hadn’t a clue to the cracks and fissures that led to the sudden falling out.

In a nutshell, the gang’s sixth-generation oyabun (leader), Shinobu Tsukasa (aka Kenichi Shinoda), an alumnus of Nagoya’s powerful Kodo-kai, was forced to deal with open rebellion by the disaffected groups in Kansai, who are now calling themselves the “Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.”

But indications surfaced that the organization’s center of gravity was shifting from Kansai to Nagoya as far back as five years ago. In its issue of June 18, 2010, Friday magazine reported that the Yamaguchi-gumi had acquired half a hectare of vacant land in Nagoya’s Meito Ward, which it had earmarked for what some suspected might eventually become its de facto headquarters.

Media implications at the time also suggested that by moving from Kobe to Nagoya, the gang intended to focus more on Tokyo, whose relative affluence makes it a target-rich environment, so to speak.

Yakuza expert Atsushi Mizoguchi, however, brushes off the notion that the gang was planning to shift its headquarters to Nagoya. Rather, he told Friday (Sept. 18), the rupture stemmed from dissatisfaction over money and personnel.

“The HQ was coercing affiliates into purchasing daily goods and mineral water, to the tune of a minimum of ¥500,000 per month — or ¥1 million for the bigger gangs,” Mizoguchi said. “Cases of water were piling up in their offices. ‘We’re not water merchants,’ they were whining.

“The Kansai gangs also rebelled over how Tsukasa had set up the line of succession so it was completely dominated by men from the Kodo-kai.”

While a great deal of coverage has been devoted to the break-up, few articles have attempted to address how the gangland schism might affect the average citizen.

Many remember what happened 30 years ago, during a previous split-up of the gang. After the death in 1981 of third-generation godfather Kazuo Taoka — who had transformed the Yamaguchi-gumi into Japan’s largest syndicate — Taoka’s widow threw her support behind 48-year-old Masahisa Takenaka as his successor. Dissatisfied with her choice, other gangs broke off to form the Ichiwa-kai. On Jan. 26, 1985, a team of hit men assassinated Takenaka, and the gangs went to the mattresses, igniting the two-year long war known as the Yama-Ichi Kōsō.

According to a 1994 book by Koichi Iiboshi, the Yamaguchi-gumi suffered 10 fatalities and 19 were wounded, while Ichiwa-kai came out somewhat worse, with 19 deaths and 49 wounded. In the course of the war, police arrested some 560 gangsters.

As the war intensified, it spilled over into the public, but recent references in some foreign media stating that “dozens” of innocent bystanders were killed or injured are exaggerated. The total civilian body count numbered four, including a policeman.

Still, news of the breakup is generating anxiety. The driver of a vacant taxi waiting on a Shinjuku street told Nikkan Gendai (Sept. 4): “The rumors have been spreading that a gang war has broken out in Kabukicho, and customers are staying away. People are complaining of a business downturn.”

Journalist Kazuo Kashima was quoted as saying that the Yamaguchi-gumi first began making inroads into Tokyo around the time of the “bubble economy” 30 years ago, and of 73 yakuza groups operating in the capital, 50 are Yamaguchi-gumi affiliates, although internecine rivalry is common. Some 1,000 yakuza are said to be active in Kabukicho, earning revenues by collecting “protection money” from bars and restaurants, and other activities. Half are estimated to have ties to the Yamaguchi-gumi.

Kashima believes that while gang members don’t dare move around in public with firearms or knives, they may have begun tapping sources in Russia and other countries to obtain weaponry.

“There’s always the danger that a passerby can be caught up in a shootout,” he warns. “Salarymen are best advised to stay off Kabukicho’s back streets.”

In Friday (Sept. 18), a Kansai-based reporter was quoted as saying: “Presently, many food and beverage shops affiliated with the Yamaken-gumi are closed. This didn’t stem from top-down commands, but out of concerns that ‘something might happen.’ From the end of August, some places went so far as not renewing their tenancy leases or even closing shop for good. I suppose they are anticipating a long-lasting dispute. … They’re on the lookout for a flare-up.”

But come on, admit it: Wouldn’t it be terribly disappointing if the feuding parties decided to let cooler heads prevail? That’s what Nikkan Gendai (Sept. 16) now speculates. It seems that the No. 2 man in the Inagawa-kai, a major gang based in Tokyo that hopes to see “mutual coexistence” prevail, traveled to Nagoya on Sept. 12 to confer with the Yamaguchi-gumi boss, urging a diplomatic solution. The move may have worked, because not long afterward Tsukasa issued what might be described as a peace feeler.

The bonds that have kept the organization together for a century may not be so easy to undo.

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