More than a year has passed since the country’s largest crime syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, split into two. More than a dozen gangs defected from the Yamaguchi-gumi on Aug. 27, 2015, to form the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, headed by Kunio Inoue, as a rival syndicate and, even now, the reasons for the breakup remain unclear.
Although the first few months of what police have called a “turf war” remained relatively calm, the violence has escalated in more recent times. Both syndicates have been accused of throwing molotov cocktails into their rival’s offices and at least one senior figure has been gunned down in an assassination-style hit. The two gangs have been trying to negotiate a truce for months.
As the anniversary drew closer, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi launched what appears to be a PR offensive, with 49-year-old Yoshinori Oda acting as its spokesman. Oda has been featured in a variety of magazines and books, presenting the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi’s version of events.
The Yamaguchi-gumi has remained relatively tight-lipped about both the split and the truce negotiations. The most recent issue of the Yamaguchi-gumi Shinpo, the organization’s newspaper, doesn’t mention the tensions but does devote space to the group’s charitable activities after the April 16 earthquakes in Kumamoto.
A number of books and magazine articles on the reasons for the friction have been published but one of the most plausible explainations comes from a boss who reportedly retired from the Yamaguchi-gumi in 2013, writing under the alias “Kenji Sakurai.”
In a 2015 book titled “The Collapse of the Kingdom,” Sakurai argues that the Yamaguchi-gumi was destined to break up long before its current leader, Shinobu Tsukasa, came to power in 2005. The impetus, he says, can be put down to an increasing willingness to ignore time-honored yakuza codes.
Sakurai says that the Yamaguchi-gumi split in 1984 after the death of Kazuo Taoka over who would become leader of the group. One of the contenders, Hiroshi Yamamoto, broke away from the group, taking almost half its members to form the Ichiwa-kai. The Ichiwa-kai eventually lost the bitter all-out war, and Yoshinori Watanabe took over as leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi in 1989.
Sakurai, however, believes that Watanabe was merely a puppet for Masaru Takumi, head of the Takumi-gumi. Takumi placed profit before honor and Sakurai effectively accuses him of doing anything for money. This, Sakurai says, includes selling methamphetamine the syndicate had purchased from Aum Shinrikyo in order to make a huge profit — something Taoka would never have approved of.
Sakurai alleges that Takumi even had Hideo Murai, a senior member of the cult, killed on April 23, 1995, by a Yamaguchi-gumi member in order to cover up the ties. He claims Takumi eventually grew tired of having to work behind the scenes and decided that Watanabe needed to go. Sakurai claims Takumi first ordered a hit on Watanabe’s right-hand man and best friend, Taro Nakano, but the assassination attempt failed. Nakano eventually figured out what was going on and assassinated Takumi in 1997. In Sakurai’s eyes, Watanabe should have rewarded Nakano. Instead, Nakano was expelled.
Sakurai goes on to describe a series of betrayals and failures by Watanabe before claiming that Tsukasa then forced him to retire in 2005. In doing so, he says, Tsukasa planted the seeds of his own downfall.
Sakurai repeatedly claims the Yamaguchi-gumi troubles exist because members no longer follow ninkyodo, or “the yakuza code of ethics.” Senior members then kept demanding higher membership dues, which accelerated the split, he says. “Who could afford to pay the dues that the Yamaguchi-gumi top brass demanded? Only gangsters making money from fraud, drugs, loan sharks, thieves and robbers,” he says in a telephone interview. “Dealing drugs, common theft and so on were all things that used to be grounds for expulsion. These days, the only ground for expulsion is failing to paying dues.”
Sakurai believes the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi broke away from the Yamaguchi-gumi in an attempt to restore Taoka’s code of honor. Shortly after the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi was founded, however, police raided its headquarters and arrested several members for running scams that targeted the elderly.
The rival syndicates both try to claim the moral high ground for the breakup and each side has its own side to the story. In order to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, however, it’s probably better to be rooting for the police in this turf war.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.