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Yakuza turf wars

Julian Ryall, TokyoSeptember 21, 2015

Under growing pressure due to legal changes, Japan's organized crime groups are now facing a backlash from the public and companies that used to provide their "earnings." Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Japan Yakuza Mitglieder zeigen ihre Tattoos beim Sanja Matsuri Fest in Tokyo
Image: picture alliance/ZUMA Press

The manager of a pair of gambling halls in southern Japan is keeping a low profile and wants no publicity, but he may have dealt a severe blow to Japan's already struggling underworld groups.

The man, who has not been named, has sought advice from Japan's Public Safety Commission about protection money he has been paying to the Kudo-kai yakuza organization over the past 15 years. The businessman estimates that he has paid the gang 40 million yen ($332,809). But with many businesses feeling the pinch of Japan's extended economic problems, he is now looking for the support of the authorities to stop paying protection money.

Yakuza Kriminalität in Japan
It is now illegal for the operators of legitimate businesses to pay protection money to the yakuza, say expertsImage: coward_lion - Fotolia.com

Police will see the man's appeal for assistance as a victory for a change in the law that was pioneered by the Fukuoka Prefecture in 2010, but copied across the country the following year.

"2011 was the big year for the clampdown on the yakuza here, with new laws going into effect that make it illegal for regular citizens to facilitate the activities of gangsters," said Brett Bull, editor at The Tokyo Reporter, which covers crime and culture in Japan.

Illegal to pay protection

"In essence, that means it is now illegal for the operators of legitimate businesses to pay protection money to the yakuza. So the case with the owner of the 'pachinko parlors' in Kitakyushu City reflects exactly what the police hoped would happen," he told DW.

If this case leads to more small-scale shops and companies similarly seeking advice and protection from the police, then the yakuza may face a devastating reduction in their income sources. That, in turn, may have a more worrying outcome.

Japanese police have stepped up preparations for a possible outbreak of violence between gangs after the nation's largest underworld group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, split in late August.

Shinobu Tsukasa, the 73-year-old head of the organization, ousted five subsidiary gangs from beneath its umbrella and placed eight more on suspension. Tsukasa, who has served three prison terms for a variety of crimes, including involvement in the murder of a rival gang boss, has been accused of favoring certain factions within the organization and of being heavy-handed in his management.

Expanding interests

Some of the factions operating mainly in the western Japanese traditional heartland of the Yamaguchi-gumi were concerned about Tsukasa's plans to expand the organization's interests - primarily loan-sharking, protection rackets, drugs, gambling and prostitution - into the more lucrative Tokyo market.

This also caused friction with the gangs that have made Tokyo their base of operations, and ultimately triggered a schism within the Yamaguchi-gumi. "He ruffled a lot of feathers," Bull admits. "This is a seismic shift in the underworld here, but it is not unprecedented, and that is one reason the police are concerned again."

Yakuza Kriminalität in Japan
Police have stepped up preparations for a possible outbreak of violence between rival factions of the Yamaguchi-gumiImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The authorities remember the civil war that erupted between different factions when the Yamaguchi-gumi went through a spell of internal upheaval in 1984. The violence lasted three years, saw 25 killings - including a police officer and an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of one shoot-out - as well as 70 injuries in incidents across Japan.

The gangs that were excommunicated by Tsukasa have swiftly banded together, named themselves the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, and announced that they are doing business as usual in the western Japanese city.

The announcement did not go unnoticed by the authorities, who acted quickly to let the new splinter group know that it was on a very short leash. Just days after the gang set up shop, 50 officers from Hyogo Prefectural Police - including a number in full riot gear - raided their offices. Officially, the police were looking into suggestions that the gang had fraudulently set up bank accounts, but the visit served as a warning.

A fractious underworld

And this may be the authorities' best weapon in dealing with a fractious and shifting underworld, believes Jake Adelstein.

"The message is that the police now have the ability to label any one of these groups an 'anti-social force,' which gives them the right to move in and close down their offices," said Adelstein, author of "Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan" and an expert on Japan's underworld groups.

"And they will exercise that option just as soon as any violence breaks out," he added. "And that is obviously bad for business as it means the gangs cannot go about their business, and hence will lose money. None of them want that."

A second fear among the gangs' leaders will be falling foul of what amounts to employer liability laws if one of their underlings kills or injures another gang member or, by accident, a regular citizen.

"A mob boss can now be held personally responsible for anything that a low-level member of their gang does," he told DW. "And, not surprisingly, they have no wish to be hit with multimillion dollar compensation suits."

The financial pressure on gangs that see themselves as businesses is not decreasing.

"These outfits are suffering just like other businesses have struggled in recent years," said Bull. "For the authorities, the challenge is to get their tentacles out of all the aspects of everyday life that they have taken hold of, and that is something that is only going to be achieved slowly."