Japan’s organized crime syndicates appear to be embroiled in something of a power struggle.
Yoshinori Oda, who heads a splinter group that left the Yamaguchi-gumi called the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi, was attacked as he left his house in Kobe on Sept. 12. Oda’s bodyguard, Yuhiro Kusumoto, was killed in the attack.
Police later issued a warrant for Tatsumi Hishikawa’s arrest over the attack. Hishikawa is a member of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, a rival splinter group that broke from the country’s largest criminal syndicate in 2015.
The relationship between the two splinter groups is complicated. The Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi was created in April after gang members left the renegade Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi due to dissatisfaction with internal operations on the part of upper-level management.
The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, which is headed by Kunio Inoue, was reportedly embarrassed by the failure of the assassination attempt in September. After all, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi had initially promised to restore the Yamaguchi-gumi’s “glorious and noble” past.
Fronting a news conference in April upon announcing the launch of the new group, Oda had pledged to turn the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi into a humanitarian organization that provided security services, protected the public order and upheld values such as “fighting the strong and protecting the weak.” He was highly critical of both the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.
To some extent Oda’s slain bodyguard reflected this new direction, leaving his organized crime syndicate a few months earlier to go straight. According to sources in both gangs, Kusumoto believed he could be a “good gangster” and his last reported words were “Go ahead, shoot me if you can.”
The Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi promoted Kusumoto at his funeral, giving him senior membership in the gang. Posthumous promotion is common in the police force for officers who are killed in the line of duty but it’s rarely done in gangland killings.
Until recently, skirmishes between the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi and the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi have been largely accidental in nature. Following the September attack, however, police have been paying close attention to the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi and its activities.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a police officer in Kansai says the failed assassination attempt hurts the gang’s reputation.
“The Kobe group is mostly comprised of members of the Yamaken-gumi faction in the old Yamaguchi-gumi, and they’ve always been considered the combat arm of the organization,” he says. “The attack was a complete failure. The assassins killed the wrong guy. One of them showed up with a machine gun and even then they couldn’t kill Oda. They also shot an unarmed guy — that’s just not very cool. The whole thing is getting out of hand.”
The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi is now considered to be a violent gang, while people almost look up to the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi. The attack has helped the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi recruit more members.
The Hyogo Police Department has created a special squad of around 500 officers to patrol the entertainment districts of Kobe and cut off an important source of revenue for gangs: protection money.
“We will crack down on senior gang members and their finances,” the head of the criminal investigative division in Kobe declared in late August at a press conference. “We will discover who pays them off and who provides them with funds. We will cut off their income sources.” The Metropolitan Police Department has also ramped up its monitoring of gang activity within the city, placing most syndicates under 24-hour surveillance.
Police in Hyogo consider the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi to be the most violent faction and have been arresting members on whatever charges they can make stick. The second most powerful member of the organization, Osamu Teraoka, was arrested on Oct. 10 on suspicion of falsifying electronic records.
However, the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi is also being closely monitored by police. On Oct. 25, police officers in Osaka arrested Nobumasa Tanaka, a 59-year-old member of the group, for aggravated possession of firearms under the Swords and Firearms Control Law. Officers found eight pistols and 143 bullets at his house in May.
It appears the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi may be trying to go straight, but they definitely aren’t planning to show up without a weapon at a gunfight.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.