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Life as a gangster in Japan just isn’t as fun as it used to be

by

Contributing Writer

A number of theories have been put forward on the reasons behind the 2015 split of the country’s largest crime syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi.

Some say the factions that left the organization and formed a group called the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi were egged on by the police, who had deliberately encouraged suspicions to grow among rival syndicates. It’s worth noting that police officers stood guard outside the new group’s headquarters when it announced its existence to the public.

Others believe the split was supported by several former Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate bosses who had been expelled with Tadamasa Goto in 2008. Those involved in organized crime call the cull the “Goto Shock,” a nod to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the same year. Indeed, Goto allegedly bankrolled the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, allowing the new organization to get up and running.

And then there’s Morimasa Ohta, a syndicate leader who had been banished with Goto before eventually joining the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi as a boss. Ohta’s tell-all memoir, “Ketsubetsu” (“Blood Parting“) which was published in July 2015, weeks before the split, is now believed to have been a call to revolt. The book sales have since become problematic because Ohta had retired from organized crime when it was published. Now that he’s joined the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, however, Ohta’s royalty payments could contradict legislation on organized crime. The law prohibits payments to anyone involved in a crime syndicate.

Yet, none of these theories completely explain why the veteran Yamaguchi-gumi members decided to leave the powerful crime syndicate when they were nearing the end of their careers.

Ryo Fujiwara, author of “The Three Yamaguchi-gumi,” believes he has an answer.

“It simply wasn’t fun to be in the Yamaguchi-gumi anymore,” Fujiwara says.”It was like working for Toyota. What was once a criminal family was becoming a corporation.”

Fujiwara, who interviewed myriad gang members when researching material for his book, describes the conditions at the Yamaguchi-gumi under the Kodo-kai faction as being stifling.

Fujiwara says the Yamaguchi-gumi is made up of many factions, but the Kodo-kai syndicate is believed to be the most high-handed. Life in the gang became regimented and oppressive after Shinobu Tsukasa assumed leadership of the syndicate with his trusted lieutenant Kiyoshi Takayama, he says.

“If you were an underboss, you had to be at the syndicate’s headquarters every day before 7:30 a.m. because Takayama would arrive at 8 a.m.,” Fujiwara says. “Gang members had to wear a white dress shirt at regular scheduled meetings. There was no clowning around, everything was deadly serious. That’s not fun at all.”

The syndicate’s leadership also demanded unconditional obedience, he says, adding that when gang members speak to their superiors, they were not allowed to make eye contact but only look at their mouths.

Fujiwara says every gang had to show their books and ledgers to the boss. All income had to be accounted for, he says, and if you drove a Mercedes, you had to prove you could afford it.

The Yamaguchi-gumi collects association dues called jonokin but it was always a flexible system, Fujiwara says. However, that wasn’t the Kodo-kai way.

“Bosses who missed a payment were told, ‘Do whatever it takes. Take a mortgage out on your house. Pay up,'” he says. “There was no mercy.”

The Kodo-kai leaders kept the lucrative jobs for themselves, but anyone else outside of the elite circle, life was tough and tedious, he says.

Fujiwara recalls an incident at at Shin-Kobe Station in September 2016 in which members of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi approached Shinobu and his entourage as they exited the ticket gates and loudly asked their former boss to sign an autograph.

Police officers held the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi members back as they begged for a signature and at least one news outlet later screened footage of the incident.

Sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword.

“This kind of attack — with a joke — probably did more damage than a grenade,” Fujiwara says. “It was a classic Osaka gag. That sort of comic sensibility has been missing from the gang for years. It was like the good old days.”

One doesn’t typically think that life in a gang is all fun and games. On this occasion, however, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi put one up on their rivals.

When asked whether the Yamaguchi-gumi might ever reconcile their differences with their rivals and reunite, Fujisawa answers fairly emphatically.

“That’s about as likely as all gang members living by the chivalrous code they are supposed to uphold,” he says.

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