World

06.25.13

The Great Japanese Gang Wars

The season for pineapples (yakuza slang for hand grenades) may finally be over. Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky on the bloody, seven-year battle between the Dojin-kai and the Seido-kai.

In Southern Japan, the brutal pineapple season may finally be over; pineapple is yakuza slang for “hand grenade”—one of the many weapons utilized in a seven-year gang war between the Dojin-kai (1,000 members) and the splinter group the Kyushu Seido-kei (500 members). It’s a gang war in which there have been over 45 violent incidents, including bombings, shots exchanged during high-speed car chases, and 14 deaths. At least seven deaths, including one civilian's, were from gunfire; a phenomenally high figure when you consider the number of gun deaths for all of Japan in 2011 was eight people. (Japan has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the world.)  

On June 11, senior members of the Dojin-kai and the Kyushu Seido-kai (a.k.a. Seido-kai) visited the Fukuoka Police Kurume Police Station with an official announcement that they were ending the conflict. The Seido-kai brought a virtual white flag, a notification of their dissolution (解散届け), in which they wrote, “For a long time we have made everyone ill at ease, disturbed people, and been a nuisance to society. We have decided our breakup is the only way to restore peace.” The Dojin-kai in turn proclaimed, “Since the Seido-kai is dissolved, this situation is over and we apologize to people and the authorities for the anxiety we have caused.”

The announcements were carefully worded to avoid civil lawsuits against the top bosses for damages the gang warfare had inflicted. In Japan, it is often hard to find a senior member criminally responsible for the crimes of his underlings, but in the civil-court system, under the concept of “employer liability,” the “management” of a major organized-crime group can be fined and ordered to pay damages.

It was the second time that a “truce” was called in the gang war, which began in 2006, and police are skeptical this new one will hold. As of June 20, the Public Safety Commission of Fukuoka stated, “We cannot be sure the gang has really dissolved,” and the commission renewed restraining orders against both groups, forbidding them from using gang offices or gathering in groups greater than five. They may be restraining ghosts—because the Seido-kai is definitely finished.

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It may seem odd that a mafia group would deliver an official notice of dissolution to the police, but in Japan organized-crime groups, known as yakuza, and called boryokudan (“violent groups”) by the police, are not illegal. They are regulated but not outlawed. They have office buildings, business cards, and their exploits are celebrated in several fan magazines and sometimes comic books. They derive their income from extortion, racketeering, bid-rigging, financial fraud, labor dispatch, and some legitimate businesses (a.k.a. "front companies"). Currently, there are 22 designated organized-crime groups that are subject to regulation and harsh punishment under Japan’s organized-crime-countermeasure laws and ordinances. When the dissolution of the Seido-kai is officially confirmed, the number will drop to 21.

After checking with sources in law enforcement, the National Police Agency, and the underworld, we have been able to confirm that the Seido-kai has truly dissolved. The group’s Tokyo office, running under such names as Namikawa Sogyo, shows no signs of activity, nor do its offices in Kyushu. Until recently, the Seido-kai was also providing labor and supplies for the cleanup at the Fukushima nuclear plant, which had a triple meltdown in March 2011. That side business is likely to vanish as well.

To make sure that everyone knows the score, last week leaders of the Dojin-kai visited most of the remaining organized-crime group leaders, in Tokyo and elsewhere, apologizing for the trouble they had caused and clarifying the situation.

‘Any gang war in which civilians are killed and the public lives in terror goes against the humanitarian way [ninkyodo] that we espouse.’

The dissolution of the Seido-kai may really signal an end to conflict in Fukuoka Prefecture and other districts in southern Japan (Kyushu) where the gang war had continued. However, the police are not entirely satisfied with how things worked out.

“Just because the Seido-kai is gone doesn’t mean there are fewer yakuza. Our best intelligence sources say that one third of the group will return to the parent organization, one third will join the Yamaguchi-gumi [Japan’s largest organized-crime group], and maybe half the rest will go straight. At least the gang wars should stop, for a while,” says one veteran organized-crime cop in the Fukuoka Prefecture Police.

The Gangs That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

The Dojin-kai and the Seido-kai are Kyushu-based yakuza gangs, once part of the same faction founded in 1971 in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture, by Isoji Koga. When the second generation Dojin-kai boss Seijiro Matsuo retired in May 2006, there was a fight over succession, and the group split into two factions, sparking a bloody gang war—where escalation seemed a matter of course. It started with shootings and bombs being thrown, and before it ended, the two gangs were lobbing grenades and Molotov cocktails, shooting machine guns, and sometimes attacking their own men. Things really escalated in in August 2007, when a shooter from the Seido-kai assassinated the head of the Dojin-kai.

There have also been civilian casualties.

On November 8, 2007, a 61-year-old Dojin-kai-affiliated gang member shot a civilian by mistake at a hospital in Takeo, Saga Prefecture. The gangster later admitted he thought that the target was associated with the enemy, but the victim had no ties with gangs. He was just a 34-year-old metalwork-factory owner. Normally, hospitals, wedding halls, and even funeral halls (no irony intended) are considered dishonorable places to wage gang wars. One of the reasons being that the risk of civilian causalities is too high.

But hospitals were not sacred refuges in this war. On Saturday, November 24, 2007, the 52-year-old head of the Seido-kai-affiliated Koga-gumi was shot dead at the entrance of a hospital in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture. Over the years, killings, assaults and shootings continued on both side.

On Wednesday April 6, 2011, a hand-grenade explosion killed former Seido-kai underboss Sueharu Matsunaga, 54, and his associate in their car. Both were the subjects of arrest warrants on suspicion that they had assaulted a senior member of their own gang with a whiskey bottle in a hostess bar in Omuta. When their bodies were found, it was not clear whether they had intended to attack the headquarters of the Seido-kai gang or had just mistakenly blew themselves up instead. Police suspect that one of them believed that one had to throw a grenade to make it explode and that pulling the pin was not enough.

In May, a 9-year-old child found a hand grenade in a rice field in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture, and took it home, to the astonishment of his father, who handed it over to the local police. According to the police, there were no yakuza headquarters where the grenade was found.

The numbers of grenades used and seized in the war became so problematic that by April 2012, the Fukuoka Prefecture Police became the first in Japan to offer cash rewards to anyone who reported finding a hand grenade. 

In August 2012, the Dojin-kai headquarters were bombed with a grenade. The following month, a building belonging to the ex-wife of a high-ranking member of the Seido-kai suffered a Molotov-cocktail attack. On December 20, 2012, a hand grenade exploded at the headquarters of the Dojin-kai in Kita-Kyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture. On the same day, the police began to take measures to shut down the offices of both gangs.

Who really forced the Seido-kai to dissolve?

Over the years, the Japanese government responded to the gang wars in Kyushu by harsh revisions of the organized-crime laws and sending detectives from all over Japan to assist local law enforcement. According to statements by the National Police Agency, “The revisions strengthened the regulation on designated [yakuza] groups attacking people with firearms and other weapons or engaged in turf wars, and also strengthened penalties.” In December of last year, both groups were designated “Special Warring Designated Organized Crime Groups” and shut out of their offices. If five of more of their members are found together, they can all be arrested. Both groups now have been designated and regulated under these laws a total of three times. The dissolution of the Seido-kai came right before the most recent renewal of their “restricted” status; the Fukuoka police announced after their meeting with the gang bosses: “It is possible that the proclamation of a truce and the dissolution announcement are simply an attempt to evade the crackdowns and restrictions placed on specially designated groups.”

Officially, the dissolution of the Seido-kai is still not recognized. Unofficially, the police are breathing a small sigh of relief.

While the Japanese police may take credit for forcing the Seido-kai to break up, others credit Japan’s largest crime groups, the Yamaguchi-gumi and possibly the Inagawa-kai, for bringing an end to the organization.

A business associate of the Dojin-kai explains as follows: “The violent war between the two groups has generated bad publicity for all the yakuza and serious crackdowns. It’s bad for business. What’s more, in the yakuza world, defying the oyabun [parent figure] and splintering from a group is looked badly upon—that’s the Seido-kai. For example, when the Nakano-kai split from the Yamaguchi-gumi in 1997, they were pariah—just like the Seido-kai.”

He and others assert that top leaders of the Yamaguchi-gumi let the current leader of the Seido-kai, Masahiro Namikawa, know that if he didn’t dissolve the group and end the conflict, he might find himself  ‘dissolved.’”

Namikawa apparently got the hint. Namikawa, who’s also known as Pak Jeong-ho, is a Korean-Japanese national and known for his close ties to North Korea and its local operations bureau in Japan, known as Chongryon (the General Association of North Korean Residents of Japan). Recent displays of aggression toward Japan by North Korea have strengthened apprehension about his activities by both law enforcement and the outlaws.

This isn’t the first time that Namikawa has aroused the ire of the Yamaguchi-gumi. In 2011, he reportedly teamed up with banished former Yamaguchi-gumi boss Tadamasa Goto to allegedly run loan-sharking and import/export businesses. The alliance was not blessed by the Yamaguchi-gumi, which reportedly pressured both parties to end ties. It’s not known why other organized-crime groups came to intervene in the conflict to negotiate a truce, but Namikawa’s ruling of the group was certainly a factor.

However, a National Police Agency analyst, on background, doesn’t see the motivations of the Yamaguchi-gumi for pressuring the Seido-kai to dissolve as being purely idealistic.

“Southern Japan is one area of the country where the Yamaguchi-gumi still doesn’t have a stronghold. By helping to crush the Seido-kai and taking on some of their members, they have better rooting. They may have helped out the Dojin-kai under the pretenses of making yakuza life better for all, but someday we may see a new gang war spring up between the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Dojin-kai. Only time will tell.”

A former Yamaguchi-gumi member would only comment, “Any gang war in which civilians are killed and the public lives in terror goes against the humanitarian way [ninkyodo] that we espouse. The general public sees all yakuza as the same. When one groups misbehaves we all take the heat. This should have ended a long time ago.