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When the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi broke up in August last year, many expected a turf war to erupt as the country’s largest crime syndicate battled for territorial control against a newly formed group called the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi that was founded by expelled gangsters in the aftermath of the split.

Until last month, police have struggled to keep a lid on the tensions that exist between the groups. Skirmishes between rival gang members have escalated since August, with crimes across the nation ranging from violent acts and shootings to vehicular rammings of offices.

Given the escalating violence, it’s a little surprising that it took police until April 15 to designate the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi as a crime syndicate.

“So long as they’re only killing and hurting each other, it makes our job easier,” a veteran cop told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Admitting that we’re in the middle of a gang war forces the police to put more officers on the streets and, ironically, they then have to protect rival factions from each other. Who wants to baby-sit gangsters?”

Until it was officially designated as a crime syndicate, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi held a tactical advantage over its rival in the battle for territorial control. While police had been on high alert, they were generally unable to move against the newcomers.

Unlike its fledgling rival, the Yamaguchi-gumi has already been designated an organized crime syndicate. A group must meet certain criteria before it can be given such a designation: it must procure capital through violence, contain members holding criminal records and be overseen by a top-down organizational hierarchy in which subordinates take orders from a leader.

Empowered with the crime syndicate designation, police have had the authority to arrest Yamaguchi-gumi members for extortion and fraud. Police can also order the group to stop demanding money and goods, and to limit the use of its offices.

On April 15, though, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi lost its tactical advantage. The Hyogo Safety Commission officially announced that the group, headed by Kunio Inoue and located in Awaji, Hyogo Prefecture, had also been designated an organized crime group.

As a result, both groups can now be raided and harassed by the police. They compete on equal footing and face equal consequences for their actions.

What’s more, Yamaguchi-gumi associates have privately said they have been instructed by superiors to avoid any major conflicts until the G-7 Ise-Shima summit has been concluded in Mie Prefecture at the end of May. The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi is believed to have handed down similar orders to its members. The groups fear that police would crack down on their activities if they embarrassed the government by engaging in violence in the leadup to the global event.

As a result of the recent developments, the skirmishes between gangs have, for the most part, halted. Police should have been relieved but the situation may have become a little murkier now that a wild card has been thrown into the mix. Tadamasa Goto, a former leader of an affiliate group in the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate, returned to Japan last month for the first time in five years. Could his visit ruffle some feathers?

According to the April 23 issue of weekly magazine Friday, Goto is believed to hold around $100 million in financial reserves.

He is also believed to be on friendly terms with Inoue, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi leader.

In contrast, Goto’s relationship with the Yamaguchi-gumi appears to be a little strained. He is believed to have promised to trade information on his associates with federal agencies in the United States in exchange for a visa to receive a liver transplant in 2001.

The syndicate expelled Goto in 2008 after he was accused of attempting to overthrow the leadership of the group with 10 other members, according to Katsumi Kimura in “Goodbye Yamaguchi-gumi.”

It appears Goto has some unfinished business to sort out with the Yamaguchi-gumi and the financial resources to do so — $100 million buys a lot of molotov cocktails.

Goto may be 73 years old but he’s in good shape thanks to the efforts of a surgeon in the United States. Depending on his actions while he is back in the country, it may not be long before gang violence escalates again.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

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