The Death and Legacy of Yakuza Boss “Mr. Gorilla”

For years Yoshinori Watanabe, aka ‘Mr. Gorilla,’ ran Japan’s most powerful and successful yakuza group. Jake Adelstein on his mysterious death over the weekend—and his legacy of modern and ruthless management of the crime syndicate.

Kyodo / Landov

Yoshinori Watanabe, the previous boss of Japan’s largest yakuza group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, passed away this weekend according to the Hyogo prefectural police. He was the fifth-generation leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi and had rarely appeared in public since retiring or being forced out of power in 2005. He was 71.

Watanabe was found collapsed at his home in Kobe on Saturday, by his family; his death was confirmed the same day. A memorial service was held for him Monday. The cause of death is unknown, but he allegedly had been in poor health for years.

Watanabe became the fifth head of the Yamaguchi-gumi in 1989 after a four-year gang war between the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Ichiwa-kai, which had split off from the main group. Watanabe, in a move to encourage Ichiwa-kai members to return to the fold, is credited with introducing a pension plan to the Yamaguchi-gumi that promised to take care of retired “employees,” much like major Japanese corporations. Watanabe was a highly intelligent gangster, but because of his slightly simian facial features, he was known amongst some police officers and some yakuza affectionately as “Mr. Gorilla” (ゴロちゃん).

Watanabe was a charismatic leader and a good businessman. By keeping the association dues low and through aggressive gang wars and leveraged peace treaties with rival gangs, he expanded the organization to become Japan’s largest organized crime group; by 2004, the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters was collecting nearly $25 million per year in association dues alone, according to police files. In the book The Business Management Methods of the Yamaguchi-gumi (2005), by yakuza expert Atsushi Mizoguchi, Watanabe succinctly explains the secret of his organized crime management: “Absolute Unity. Retaliation. Silence. Appropriate rewards and punishments, and judicious use of violence.”

However, during his reign, problems also emerged. Anti-yakuza legislation went on the books (1992) and legal precedents were set that gradually forced the yakuza underground. In a civil lawsuit over the shooting death of a policeman in a gang conflict that involved the Yamaguchi-gumi, Watanabe was effectively ordered by Japan’s Supreme Count to pay damages of about 80 million yen in 2004. This was the first time the courts recognized a Yakuza boss’s "employer liability."

In the summer of 2005, Watanabe resigned as leader and was succeeded by Kenichi Shinoda, also known as Shinobu Tsukasa. It was never clear whether he really retired or was forced out. In the video of succession ceremony held at Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters in August 2005, Watanabe appeared disgruntled and barely spoke. There was a failed attempt by Tadamasa Goto and other Yamaguchi-gumi members to restore Watanabe to power in 2008, but it was quashed quickly and the Yamaguchi-gumi bosses involved were exiled. Since then, Watanabe was closely monitored by the Yamaguchi-gumi ruling faction, and in essence, “the gorilla boss” died in captivity.

Watanabe was a folk hero in Kobe, the town where he died, after organizing relief efforts and providing food, water, and essential supplies to the locals after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January of 1995.

Under Watanabe’s successor, Shinobu Tsukasa, the Yamaguchi-gumi absorbed the Tokyo-based Kokusui-kai in 2005, giving them a strong base in eastern Japan. By 2007 the Yamaguchi-gumi had effectively put the Inagawa-kai under their umbrella, making them the Walmart of Japanese organized crime with more than half of the total yakuza (79,000) being under their control.