TOKYO—Cops in Japan have to do jobs they hate, and one of them is babysitting gangsters. Yep, keeping the peace sometimes means keeping the traditionally tattooed, sociopathic, tribalistic, and well-tailored yakuza from killing each other. That doesn’t always go well.
On the afternoon of Oct. 10, in Kobe city, the police stationed in front of the offices of a yakuza group, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi (“the Rebellion”) were on guard and bored.
Some were in uniform, some were plainclothes cops. Often, in both physical appearance and dress (white shirts, black ties, black suits), it is hard to tell the cops that crack down on the yakuza (marubo deka) from the yakuza themselves. Of course, cops don’t get tattoos or chop off their little fingers to atone for their mistakes. (Cop or yakuza? When in doubt, count fingers or look for tats.)
These police officers were protecting the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi gangsters from attacks by a rival group of yakuza.
In Japan, “the yakuza” is an umbrella term for over 20 different mafia groups, each with their own corporate logo, history, and office buildings. The groups are not illegal. The major bosses are known to the public;. Until last summer there were monthly magazines devoted to covering the exploits of the yakuza; some weekly magazines still cover them. Although most yakuza groups make their money from extortion, racketeering, gambling, drugs, blackmail and, increasingly, fraud, many members also pay taxes. Most bosses traditionally forbid their underlings from engaging in petty theft, robbery and common street crimes. That bare-bones code of honor helps project the image that yakuza help keep the peace.
Some yakuza organizations have legitimate front companies: restaurants, real-estate agencies, and even crypto-currency exchanges. There are laws regulating what yakuza can and can’t do and police are quick to bust them on any charges they can—since 2011—but they don’t seem inclined to obliterate them.
Of all the yakuza groups in Japan, the Yamaguchi-gumi, founded in 1915, was the gang that ruled them all until the organization split apart almost exactly five years ago—on Aug. 27, 2015. At the height of their power, they had 40,000 members; they controlled firms listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange; they moved the financial markets; they played a role in determining which political alliance would rule the nation; and they even had a say on who would come and go as prime minister.
Five years ago, however, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi split from the original organization. Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi would later suffer a rebellion of its own—resulting in three gangs with a claim to the revered Yamaguchi-gumi name.
What followed has been a bloody, violent and erratic war, with further splits, assassinations and behind-the-scenes machinations. Last October, Japan still thought it would be hosting the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The police and the National Police Agency did not want the increasingly spectacular violence between the gangs to scare off tourists, or athletes. Which explains why those police officers were on guard in front of the offices of the Rebellion on Oct. 10.
Members of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi were having their monthly board meeting inside. It had started at 1 p.m., and of course, the media was hanging around to take pictures.
The police went from being bored to annoyed. They were annoyed by a weekly magazine reporter wearing a cap, carrying a camera, who had parked his car in front of the building. They asked him to move his car and to show some ID. The old reporter fumbled around, gave them his business card. The police warned the elderly fellow that the area was dangerous. A gang war was taking place. He said he understood but he had a job to do.
As the police continued to ask him questions, two yakuza stepped out of the headquarters, onto the street–and suddenly the reporter pulled a pump-action handgun from the car and shot both of the men, hitting their necks and chest, blood spilling onto the street. Chaos ensued. Angry yakuza yelled at the cops, “What the hell are you doing?” Police grabbed the shooter, slamming him to the ground. CPR was attempted on the scene but proved of little use. The two yakuza were declared dead at the hospital.
The “reporter,” Toshio Maruyama, was actually a 68-year-old hitman for the Yamaguchi-gumi on a mission. The cops arrested Maruyama on the spot; he didn’t seem to mind.
“I did it and I did it by myself,” he told the police. He’d done his job. It was just one more murder in a long war. And of course, sooner or later, more retaliation would come.
There is a Japanese saying, “If you curse someone, dig two graves.”
The five-year yakuza war has left every organization in the Japanese underworld with wounds. It looks like that war is finally going to come to an end but with great losses for all. The Yamaguchi-gumi are going to achieve a victory—but they aren’t really the winners of this war.
The Seeds of Discontent
The current yakuza war has been waging for five years but the roots run deep. The Yamaguchi-gumi has never been an entirely happy family; there are many factions, some separate groups have been absorbed into the empire over the years, all vying for power and a seat in the ruling committees. Some factions have a higher number of Korean-Japanese, some are dominated by dowa, former members of Japan’s outcast class. Like all yakuza groups, there is a family structure in which the leader of each group is called the oyabun (father-figure) and the members swear loyalty to him and their ‘brothers’. The authority of the oyabun is considered to be absolute. “If the oyabun says the passing crow is white, it’s white”, goes the saying. These bonds between father and sons, older and younger brothers, are all formed with a ritual sake exchange. In theory, those bonds are sacrosanct.
The Yamaguchi-gumi itself was founded in 1915 as a dock-worker union and labor dispatch agency in the port city of Kobe. After the end of World War II, under the tutelage of third generation leader Kazuo Taoka, a brilliant tactician and gangster, they secured territory by bringing some order to the streets, running the black market, moving into gambling, loan sharking, construction and even the entertainment industry.
The Yamaguchi-gumi ostensibly stayed out of the drug trade, street crime and common theft and made strategic alliances with politicians and even the police. Taoka even served as the honorary police chief for a day at a Kobe police station in the sixties.
It wasn’t until 1962 that the police made their first concentrated crackdown on the leadership of the Yamaguchi-gumi as part of a nationwide effort to put the increasingly belligerent mafia under wraps before the 1964 Olympics. The group survived.
In 1989, the fifth generation leader of the group, Yoshinori Watanabe, took the reins of power after the end of a bloody four-year gang war that is eerily reminiscent of the current feud. Watanabe, was sometimes referred to as “the Gorilla” due to his simian appearance, but he had Planet of The Apes-level intelligence and cunning. With his rise, his faction, Yamaken-gumi, rose to great power pushing the rival Kodo-kai faction to the fringes. This sub-group, which is based in Nagoya—also home to Toyota and really delicious miso-basted fried chicken wings—would not remain in the shadows forever.
On Aug. 27, 2005, the Kodo-kai took over with a vengeance after Watanabe was forced out of power, literally at gunpoint according to some sources. The Kodo-kai was headed by the mustachioed Tsukasa Shinobu, sometimes known as the dapper don for his sartorial tastes—and he does look great in a fedora. As the sixth generation leader of the all-powerful Yamaguchi-gumi, he ruled with an iron fist and jacked up the association dues. The Yamaguchi-gumi, like most yakuza groups, is a franchise. To use the corporate logo and get the benefits of the organization you have to pay your dues monthly–and pay extra fees for special events. Resentments simmered. Kodo-kai faction members rose to the top disproportionately to other factions. The burden of paying association dues weighed heavily on less industrious yakuza members. Tsukasa also forbade trading in drugs, which some members felt was old-fashioned.
In 2008, Tadamasa Goto, a sociopathic boss with a bad habit of letting his men maim and kill innocent civilians—including film director Juzo Itami —tried to stage a coup but the revolt was nipped in the bud. He was expelled; many of his minions and allies were excommunicated for life. And of course, many of his allies belonged to the powerful Yamaken-gumi faction, which had previously dominated the organization. The seeds of the Rebellion were sown.
The Big Break
Seven years later the Yamaken-gumi decided to break away from the main organization. They were upset about the high fees paid up the chain and the lack of upward mobility within the ranks. On Aug. 27, 2015, they launched a new rival group, Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, along with some other disgruntled factions. The date had great significance. It took place during the centennial of the Yamaguchi-gumi. It also marked the 10th anniversary of Tsukasa taking over as the sixth generation leader; breaking away on that date was a very deliberate snub to the dapper don.
The revolt was allegedly funded by Goto, the exiled former coup-plotter. Another former yakuza boss, Morimasa Ohta, who had written a tell all-book about his reign and his banishment, Blood Parting, returned from the shadows to join with the Rebellion. Fate and momentum seemed to be on their side. The police certainly were. When Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi held their ceremonies, the police stood guard outside their new headquarters. At first, the conflict was subdued but as time went on, killings and attacks escalated.
Even at the start of the conflict, many argued that Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi didn’t punch back with enough vigor. In the yakuza, if you turn the other cheek, you’re seen as weak. If you don’t strike back, you strike out. And this appears to have been the undoing of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi; a failure to retaliate effectively.
They suffered their first casualty in May of 2016, when a powerful underboss was shot to death with a revolver one morning in the parking lot of his condominium.
“Can I Have Your Autograph?”
Some of the ‘attacks’ waged in this conflict were based on honor not violence. In September 2016, Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi members surrounded Tsukasa, the formerly untouchable leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi, as he got off the bullet train at Shin-Kobe station loudly asking for his autograph. “Please sign my notebook,” “I want your signature,” they hollered, holding pens and colored-sheets of paper. The pissed-off Tsukasa walked past them while photos were snapped. The act of defiance was a commentary on the boss’ celebrity status and a jab at the personality cult that had sprung up around him; it made him look silly. “For a yakuza, losing face is worse than losing a finger,” one retired boss told The Daily Beast.
The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi was not laughing for long. Just as the Rebellion’s leader Kunio Inoue had ‘betrayed’ his oyabun, in 2017, his trusted lieutenant betrayed him and broke away from the group dramatically, creating another new group, which was intended to go legit and become a sort of yakuza boy scouts. Inoue was not amused and the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi began fighting a war on two fronts.
In the last three years, members of these three groups fighting over the Yamaguchi-gumi name have shot each other with machine guns, rammed trucks into the homes of opposing bosses, beaten up opposition members, and posted the drubbings on YouTube. Firebombing homes and offices has been part of the conflict as well. Remarkably there have been no civilian casualties, but casualties on the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi side have been heavy.
Last December, Hiroji Nakata, one of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi bosses, was arrested for the attempted murder of a Yamaguchi-gumi boss–not just plotting it, but actually doing the dirty work. It sent shockwaves through the underworld.
For a yakuza boss to work as a hitman is unheard of in this highly hierarchical tribe; that’s for the underlings. It would be like Jeff Bezos showing up to stuff boxes at an Amazon warehouse. In the underworld people joked that the Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi was so short on manpower that there was no one else up for the task. According to the police, on Aug. 21, 2019, acting on his own, Nakata rode a black motorcycle past a Yamaguchi-gumi office and shot a gang member in the stomach as the victim returned home from shopping. The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi reportedly tried, unsuccessfully, to find a dummy to take the fall for the crime.
Last month, while still awaiting trial, Nakata made it known that he would be breaking away from the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi with his faction. At roughly the same time, another faction based in Okayama, which has considerable wealth from real estate dealings, also announced plans to quit. The Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi has fallen to less than a thousand members. A Yamaguchi-gumi underboss told The Daily Beast, “It’s easy to see the tide has turned. The problem with Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi really became that no matter what you did to them, they didn’t punch back. And no one wants to take sides with a punching bag.”
This month, things got worse for Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi. According to sources in the Osaka Police Department, the financial arm of the group may also decide to dissolve or separate from the group; it will be a death blow. Tadashi Irie, the white-haired crew-cut leader of the faction is not only a financial genius, he is widely respected in the underworld. He has risked jail-time to make sure that the family of a hitman was well taken care of despite laws banning such practices. He also possesses knowledge of the deepest financial workings of the group. Irie is reportedly looking to leave the gang and go straight. It was confirmed in documents obtained by The Daily Beast that two other factions left the group this week as well. A small group in Osaka departed; the Masaki-gumi in Fukui Prefecture (140 members) also broke away and is said to be disbanding.
What Was Lost In The War
The five-year war has been bad for everyone in the business.
The police have used the war as a legitimate pretext for closing down the offices of all parties and cracking down on all gang operations. There has also been a corresponding breakdown in the moral order of the groups, which traditionally forbids fraud, robbery and theft. The code of silence, the understanding that yakuza bosses would not talk about internal affairs and scandals, has completely fallen apart. The publication of Habakarinagra (Pardon Me But) by Goto in 2010 was the first tell-all self-serving yakuza exposé, but during the civil war, former bosses have been very bold about discussing the inner workings of the group and the reasons for the split.
There has been another casualty of war: the monthly yakuza fanzines. These thick publications containing comic book histories of the yakuza, stories of arrests, casualties, tattoo centerfolds, glossy photo essays of yakuza meetings, and some poetry, were an integral part of criminal life. These magazines were the way the cops, journalists, civilians and even the yakuza themselves kept track of the business. They were also the equivalent of army recruiting posters for the underworld.
Due to increased police pressure on financial institutions not to lend money to the publishers, and a waning interest in the activities of the yakuza—more than half of the yakuza are now at least 50 years old—these once profitable magazines have vanished. The biggest, Jitsuwa Document, folded in 2018 and Jitsuwa Jidai published its final issue last summer. The glory days and glorification days appear to be over. In a PR-smashing slap to the Yamaguchi-gumi, the police are attempting to ban their annual Halloween Party for the neighborhood children held at the Kobe headquarters. It will be the end to a grand tradition that has run for almost two decades.
Goodbye Yakuza Halloween—where the real faces of the hosts are scarier than masks, but the candy is dandy! The kids will be sad.
Of course, the Hyogo Prefectural Police and Japan’s National Police Agency are thrilled.
The police are the real winners in this five-year war. It’s a war they were hoping would take place. By tacitly aiding and abetting this gang conflict, by standing by and watching it unfold, they have allowed the yakuza to handicap themselves. A joke shared with The Daily Beast by an organized crime police officer in Osaka summarizes their attitude to the whole conflict.
“What is the criminal charge when a yakuza kills another yakuza?”
“Destruction of property.”
It is not only property and lives that have been lost in the conflict, some argue the yakuza ideals of honor and loyalty, as perfunctory as they might have been, were also lost and if not lost, mortally wounded.
Satoru Takegaki, a former Yamaguchi-gumi crime boss, whose own book about the organization hit the stands on Aug. 27, says the civil war has negatively affected the entire yakuza world. He points out that the split has a ripple effect, especially as groups tried to decide whom to align with in the struggle. The third-largest yakuza organization, the Inagawa-Kai, has suffered its own factional splits. Aizu Kotetsu-kai, located in Kyoto, and the oldest yakuza group in Japan, also splintered.
“Five years ago, when the Yamaguchi-gumi split apart, the yakuza world had to reassess the meaning and importance of the bonds cemented by ritual sake drinking,” Takegaki said.
“When you ignore the precepts and rationale of the yakuza world, you call into question the entire structure of the society. This is why no (respectable) yakuza organization bonded with Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.
“If you’ve drunk the sake, and become disenchanted with that oath of loyalty, then you should just leave the group and go straight. If you don’t have the stomach (to honor the pledge) then don’t drink the sake.”