Since the breakup of Japan’s largest crime syndicate, demand in the nation’s underworld has soared for two things: loaded weapons and hit men.
Police officials say one of the bloodiest gang feuds in years could soon erupt between the Yamaguchi-gumi and gangs that split from the syndicate in late August. The first shot in the battle might have already been fired outside a hot spring facility in Iida, Nagano Prefecture.
The 43-year-old man who was shot and killed outside the “onsen” on Oct. 6 wanted to leave a Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate and join the newly formed rival organization consisting of the rebel gangs. Nagano prefectural police two days later arrested a senior member of a gang affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi on suspicion of murder.
Police are trying to prevent similar attacks. But mobsters in both the Yamaguchi-gumi and the breakaway group appear to have been arming themselves for weeks for battle.
Sources with links to organized crime said mobsters are recruiting members of foreign gangs to hunt down rivals. The recruitment drive for assassins is also aimed at young men who hope to make names for themselves and one day become full-fledged gang members, the sources said.
One source said an acquaintance in his 20s had been approached for a possible job.
“By proposing high pay, the recruiters are trying to encourage the gang warfare by hinting that those who carry out the first hits will be paid more,” the source said.
A former high-ranking gang member living in the Kanto region said he began receiving calls asking about the availability of loaded guns from around late August, when the Yamaguchi-gumi split came to light.
The calls, eight in total, to the former gangster’s mobile phone continued into September.
Without saying who made the calls, the former gangster said the requests likely came from both sides involved in the Yamaguchi-gumi breakup.
The large number of intermediaries involved in supplying guns made it difficult to pinpoint who was actually going on the shopping spree, the former mobster said.
The law of supply and demand applies to the underworld as well. In Japan, which has strict gun-control laws, a loaded gun normally can be bought for about 300,000 yen ($2,500), the former gangster said. Now, such a gun can fetch 1 million yen.
Concerned particularly about innocent bystanders being caught in the crossfire of another gang feud, the National Police Agency summoned high-ranking officials who deal with organized crime from prefectural police departments around Japan for an emergency meeting in Tokyo on Sept. 2.
Masahito Kanetaka, the commissioner general of the NPA, declared war on the syndicates. “We will push forward with stronger efforts to weaken and destroy organized crime groups such as the Yamaguchi-gumi,” he said.
The fatal shooting in Nagano Prefecture led to a separate instruction from the NPA to all prefectural police departments to strengthen patrols and enhance intelligence-gathering.
The Yamaguchi-gumi had 10,400 members in 44 prefectures as of the end of 2014. The number would be 23,400 if quasi-members were included, accounting for 43.7 percent of all organized crime members in Japan.
But 13 of the 72 gangs that made up the Yamaguchi-gumi broke away and formed a new umbrella organization called the “Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi,” according to police officials.
Most of those 13 gangs have roots in the Kansai region and were disgruntled with the Yamaguchi-gumi’s increasing emphasis on the Nagoya region. Kenichi Shinoda, the Yamaguchi-gumi don who is better known as Shinobu Tsukasa, said he wanted to move the organization’s headquarters to Nagoya.
The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi is headed by Kunio Inoue, 67, the boss of Yamaken-gumi. Shinoda’s predecessor as Yamaguchi-gumi don was the head of the Yamaken-gumi.
This is not the first time for the Yamaguchi-gumi to split.
Between 1985 and 1987, 25 yakuza members were killed and around 70 were injured in a feud involving affiliated rival gangs. That bloodshed was triggered in part over disagreement over who should become the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi.
Organized crime groups now face difficulties raising funds after all prefectures in Japan adopted ordinances with the aim of severing business ties with mobsters and ridding society of yakuza groups. Sources said the Yamaguchi-gumi’s demand for membership fees from affiliated groups was also behind the animosity toward Shinoda.
Hyogo prefectural police, who cover the Kobe region, once embarked on a concerted effort to clamp down on the Yamaguchi-gumi. In 1968, the department even compiled an internal document purported to be a history of the eradication of the Yamaguchi-gumi.
However, the Yamaguchi-gumi remains the largest organized crime group in Japan.
Its roots go back to Harukichi Yamaguchi from Awajishima island in Hyogo Prefecture. According to police documents, the Yamaguchi-gumi started out with about 50 members in Kobe in 1915.
It expanded into a huge nationwide organization under Kazuo Taoka, who took over as don in 1946. The decision on choosing Taoka’s successor triggered the bloody feud among Yamaguchi-gumi affiliated gangs in the 1980s.
THE ASAHI SHIMBU