TOKYO — It’s been over a month since Japan’s largest organized crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, split into two rival factions, and, ever since, people here have been waiting for something to go bump (or be bumped off) in the night.
But it appears the first victim in the looming gang war is nothing more or less than the gang’s annual Halloween festivities, which had become a yearly event at the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters in Kobe.
Each Oct. 31, the gangsters famous for their permanent costumes (tattoos, missing digits and the like) invited ordinary citizens, mostly small children in “scary” outfits, to have fun with extortion, demanding Japanese candies and snacks.
In front of the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters—and yes, all of Japan’s designated mafia groups have well-known headquarters—a sign has been posted in Japanese noting the cancellation of the annual trick-or-treat exchanges:
Every year on October 31st, as per custom, we have held a Halloween [event], but this year, due to various circumstances, the event has been called off. We realize this is causing great regret to those parents and children who looked forward to this, but next year we absolutely will hold the event, so please look forward to it. In great haste, we humbly inform you of this.
The 6th Generation Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters.
The Sankei Shimbun was the first to report these unhappy tidings on Oct. 21, but all through Kobe, certainly, the sad news was reverberating.
It might surprise many in the West that a notorious syndicate which makes its money through blackmail, racketeering, extortion, and other crimes distributed candy to the neighborhood children each year, but the custom fits a pattern.
The Yamaguchi-gumi has been in business since 1915, when it first began as a temporary staffing agency on the docks of Kobe, a port city. The Yamaguchi-gumi has always tried to cultivate good relations with the locals, hosting an annual rice cake-making event at the start of the year in which the gang distributes food and booze to the locals.
In the past, the group even followed a New Year’s tradition of giving o-toshi-dama to children who came to visit, o-toshi-dama essentially being envelopes full of cash with ornate New Year’s greetings written on them.
A little money buys a lot of good will. And after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the great disaster of March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, the Yamaguchi-gumi was quick to provide aid in the form of blankets, food, water, and shelter.
The police label such organizations boryokudan—violent groups—but the Yamaguchi-gumi still insists that it is a humanitarian organization providing discipline and homes to social outcasts, and dispensing street justice. Most of its victims and the police would disagree with that definition.
It’s not clear when the Yamaguchi-gumi began celebrating Halloween, but Kobe is an international city where, in some neighborhoods, a U.S.-like traditional Halloween has taken root. One Kobe resident in her thirties, who prefers not to be named saying anything related to the Yamaguchi-gumi, tells The Daily Beast she remembers her international school classmates paying Halloween visits to the headquarters even 20 years ago. She says that the first time her classmates went shouting “trick or treat,” the hapless yakuza who answered the doorbell was utterly befuddled. After trying to figure out what to do, he ended up giving each of the children 1000-yen bills ($10) and told them to go away.
And thus, perhaps, a tradition began.
The Yamaguchi-gumi, like any corporation that has lasted over 100 years, is certainly PR savvy. The official policy of the organization is to give no on-the-record interviews by active members. However, the organization allows yakuza fanzines to photograph events and in October of 2011, the Sankei Shimbun printed an on-the-record interview with the 6th generation leader of the group, Kenichi Shinoda aka Shinobu Tsukasa, in which he explained the rationale of the group’s existence and justified its legality.
There was no official response from the Yamaguchi-gumi on why this year’s festivities had been canceled, but a low-ranking underboss told The Daily Beast over the phone that “Trouble is brewing with the breakaway faction, the so-called ‘Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi,’ and we don’t want to take a chance that some innocent child is embroiled in violence. That would be unforgivable.”
Atsushi Mizoguchi, Japan’s foremost expert on the Yamaguchi-gumi, said that he believed the Yamaguchi-gumi split would result in all yakuza losing power and might herald the end of the yakuza themselves.
Speaking at a press conference last week, Hideaki Kubori, a lawyer specializing in dealing with yakuza related problems, said, “There was a time when the yakuza were thought to be a necessary evil. They aren’t necessary anymore.”
This may be true, but for some Kobe trick-or-treaters the group would be missed.
A veteran detective with the Hyogo Police Department, speaking privately, is skeptical of the announcement. “It’s a way for the Yamaguchi-gumi to remind people that the old guard has always been careful to get along with the local populace and that they’re not all bad.”
He added, “It’s a very cost-efficient form of PR for them. The candy is cheap and they don’t even need to spend money on costumes. Most of them have faces so scary already that they look like monsters without doing anything at all.”
And the organization, it would seem, is a mere ghost of what it used to be.