TOKYO — Molotov cocktails, beatings, shootings—the tempo of Yakuza on Yakuza violence is picking up in Japan, and there’s every reason to believe it’s just a little taste of what’s to come.
Almost six months after this country’s largest crime organization—the Yamaguchi-gumi, the one yakuza group that once ruled them all—was split apart by the defection of many members to a new group calling itself Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, or KY, Japan’s tabloid press has been predicting “a sea of blood.”
Many fear the two gangs will go head to head in an all-out war, and other gangs may follow suit.
Taro Kono, Japan’s chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, which oversees the police, admitted as much at a news conference on March 4: “There’s no denying that a gang war is taking place,” he said.
A day later, on March 5, a truck was rammed into a KY office and shots fired into its building in Mito City. Then a truck was smashed into a Yamaguchi-gumi office in Mie Prefecture. In Kobe, a KY executive had his car smashed. On Sunday, around 7:40 a.m., five shots were fired into a KY office in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Kono said he had ordered the police to crack down on the groups, “so they will not cause trouble to the citizens,” an interesting and ironic choice of phrase. “Citizens” (shimin/katagi) is a favorite word used by the yakuza to suggest that their criminal world exists somehow in a parallel universe.
Japan’s organized crime groups claim to be fraternal organizations promoting humanitarian values. Yes, they acknowledge that they engage in racketeering, blackmail, and extortion, but they insist, “We don’t cause trouble to ordinary citizens.”
This has led to a curious and distinctly Japanese situation, in which, since 1992, organized criminal groups are not so much outlawed as regulated. But when the yakuza turn on each other, all bets are off.
When the Yamaguchi-gumi schism became evident last August, a police source in Hyogo Prefecture told The Daily Beast, “The last major split in the Yamaguchi-gumi resulted in five years of violent disruptive gang warfare. We are on full alert in case history repeats itself. It would seem likely that it will.”
According to the National Police Agency, since the KY peeled off from the Yamaguchi-gumi, there have been more than 20 violent flare-ups between members of the two groups. The attacks have included brawls, shootings, crashing vehicles into buildings, Molotov cocktails, and possibly at least one brutal murder.
Because of the legal framework attempting to manage established yakuza organizations, the century-old Yamaguchi-gumi, founded in 1915, has a disadvantage in the fight.
As a designated organized crime group they are subjected to a number of laws and regulations that make it easy for the police to raid their offices, arrest their members and slow their operations. The number three of the Yamaguchi-gumi was recently arrested on minor charges, leaving a gap in the power structure.
The Kobe Yamaguchi, on the other hand, was created only a few months ago and has not been officially designated an organized crime group. Thus it is able to move more freely.
The Hyogo Prefecture Police on March 22 will hold a hearing with Kunio Inoue, the head of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, who formerly headed the Yamaken-gumi faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi—before leading the rebellion.
The first months after the breakup were relatively quiet until Oct. 26, when Toshiyuki Kawachi, a mid-ranking Yamaguchi-gumi who had reportedly been exiled from the group, was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The Osaka Police ruled it was a suicide.
On Nov. 15, in Mie Prefecture, Tatsuyuki Hishida, leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi Aiokai (literally “Love Cherry Blossoms Association”), was murdered by an intruder in his second home. He was found with his hands and feet bound and his head bashed in by an iron pipe. The killer had come in through the second-floor window.
That was not ruled a suicide. But even then the police did not call it a gang war-related killing. An official admission of a gang war would require the police to devote extensive manpower to preventing further bloodshed and even “protect” the yakuza groups from each other.
Since January, the conflicts have escalated. In Tokyo’s notorious red-light district, Kabukicho, there have been two run-ins between KY members and the Yamaguchi-gumi members; the first on Jan. 15 and the second on Feb. 15.
The most recent squabble began when Yamaguchi-gumi members attacked a KY member on their turf. Eyewitnesses reported seeing several men kicking and beating the KY member, who was wearing camouflage and had a shaved head. Some of his bones were broken and his skull cracked a few feet away from the local government office of the Shinjuku Ward. The Shinjuku Police descended on the area, closing it off for a short time.
There were according to some accounts, a total of 60 yakuza altogether, trading blows and kicks on the streets, in a scene reminiscent of the popular yakuza video game series Ryu Ga Gotoku. No arrests were announced.
Two days later, on Feb. 17 in Osaka, a two-ton truck was smashed into the offices of Yamaguchi-gumi Akira Rengo-kai. In Fukui Prefecture, on Feb. 23, in front of the police who were standing on alert outside the offices of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi Masaki-gumi office building, a 38-year-old member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Toshiyuki Yamamoto, fired five shots into the door and was arrested on the spot. On the same day, before his arrest, his letter and declaration of his crime was delivered to several media outlets and yakuza fanzines. (Yes, the yakuza have fan magazines in Japan.)
In the letter, Yamamoto wrote a plea for peace, making him sort of the Gandhi of gangsters. “To those in the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi: we all used to be brothers eating under the same roof, why do we have to be fighting here and there—it’s beyond my understanding. Before too long, many young people will be spilling their blood. It’s not good to sacrifice young people. Now is the time. Find a way to come back. Come back. Don’t make the actions I’m about to take be in vain.”
His five gunshots served as exclamation points.
On Feb. 29, in Toyama Prefecture, a Molotov cocktail was tossed at the home of a second-tier Yamaguchi-gumi office. And the hits keep coming.
An organized crime officer told The Daily Beast privately that the police were on high alert for the 15th of this month: the Ides of March.
“The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi has a monthly meeting in Tokyo every 15th,” the officer explained. “It isn’t always the same place and we don’t know where it will be next. On March 14, there will be a verdict delivered in Nagoya District Court over whether two Yamaguchi-gumi members are guilty of assault. The charges relate to their attempt to bring rebel members back into the fold. Everyone is losing patience.”
I joked that we really should “beware the Ides Of March,” as the soothsayer warned Julius Caesar before his murder in Shakespeare’s play. But the detective didn’t see the humor in it.
“This month is going to be rough—lots of reasons for fights, other than the 14th and 15th,” he continued seriously. “The birthday of the third generation leader of the group, Kazuo Taoka, is on March 28. Both groups claim to be following in his footsteps. It’s another pretext for conflict.”
As if, at this point, any more pretexts are needed. The tide is rising in the sea of blood.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, March 8, the National Police Agency, after officially recognizing that a gang war is taking place, set up a special headquarters to monitor and stop the conflict, and special divisions in 44 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. The NPA announced that since the split (Aug. 27, 2015) there have been 49 skirmishes involving both gangs: four shootings, four scuffles involving multiple parties, three Molotov cocktails, and nine attacks using motor vehicles. The police have arrested and/or detained 65 yakuza involved in the gang wars.