Japan is bracing for war.
Not with other countries, but with the nation's notorious gangsters.
A 43-year-old man was gunned down in the parking lot of a hot springs resort in western Japan earlier this month in what authorities say they fear could be the start of a deadly war among the nation's largest organized crime gangs, known collectively as the yakuza.
The powerful Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate, which marked its 100th anniversary this year, split into two rival groups in September. Police arrested a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi in the hot springs shooting and identified the victim as a member of the breakaway group.
Analysts said the rupture was due to long-running disputes over succession plans and high fees that member groups were required to pay Yamaguchi-gumi leaders.
Japan’s National Police Agency warned of possible gang violence at an emergency meeting of senior officials from each of the country's 47 prefectures shortly after the split. "We don't have specific information thus far that the rift will develop into inter-gang conflicts, but there were incidents in the past which involved civilians," Takashi Kinoshita, chief of the JNPAs organized crime division, said at the meeting in early September, according to local media.
A dispute over the gang’s leadership in the early 1980s led to a two-year war that left an estimated 30 gangsters dead, 70 others wounded and more than 500 in police custody. However, there are no statistics on the number of civilians killed or injured in the violence.
Today, local news media report that yakuza groups are beginning to stockpile weapons and recruit members to carry out potential hits. The price of a handgun sold on the black market has risen from $2,500 to $10,000 in recent weeks, according to Asahi Shimbun, a leading mainstream newspaper.
Legal firearms are highly restricted in Japan. In a nation of roughly 127 million people, Japan had just 35 cases of firearm shootings in 2010, according to the most recent data available from the National Police Agency's “Crime in Japan” report.
Last month, in the western Japanese city of Toyama, one yakuza group paraded as many as 100 gangsters down a busy street in a show of strength. Two nights later, a rival group did the same nearby, Kyodo News Service reported. Authorities responded by sending scores of police to raid each group's headquarters, according to Kyodo.
Police estimate that Yamaguchi-gumi had about 10,000 core members and about 14,000 affiliated members before the split. About one-third are believed to have broken off to form a rival organization, called the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.
Atsushi Mizoguchi, a journalist and author who has written extensively on the yakuza, said it is unlikely that senior leaders would order a full-on war. But he said at least some violence is likely as rival groups fight for turf.
“If organized criminals were able to establish viable revenues by invading the domain of others … it could lead to skirmishes in various places around the country. That could expand and eventually could well lead to a (violent) struggle,” Mizoguchi said at a Tokyo press briefing this week.
Jake Adelstein, a Tokyo journalist and authority on organized crime, is less sure. He points to the case of Tadamasa Goto, a yakuza boss who was ordered to pay $1.2 million in damages to the family of a real estate agent murdered by members of his gang in 2012. Although Goto was not charged in the death, he was still held liable.
“The situation is very different from what it was in the '80s,” Adelstein said. “It's not economically wise to have a gang war. The general public is no longer tolerant of yakuza conflict. It's costly to kill people.”
Yakuza gangs, long tolerated as a “necessary evil” in Japan, have been in slow decline since organized crime countermeasures were enacted in the early 1990s. Many gangs still operate semi-openly, however, with headquarters, business cards and legitimate-appearing front companies.
Yakuza engage in a variety of “serious criminal activities, including weapons trafficking, prostitution, human trafficking, drug trafficking, fraud and money laundering,” according to a February 2012 report from the U.S. Treasury Department. Extortion, loan-sharking and “protection” rackets also are common yakuza activities in Japan.
President Obama issued an executive order in 2011 designating the yakuza as a “transnational criminal organization.” The Treasury Department has since frozen assets in the U.S. of more than a dozen yakuza bosses — including the leaders of the Yamaguchi-gumi and the breakaway Kodo-kai gang — and has forbidden Americans from doing business with them.
In a report issued in April, the Treasury Department labeled the Kodo-kai “the most violent faction within the Yamaguchi-gumi” and said the yakuza has engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering in the United States, but did not provide details. There is no indication that any yakuza violence as a result of the recent split could spread to the U.S.
Thanks to Kirk Spitzer.
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