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New Order in Japanese Underworld

Police are keeping watch as the Yamaguchi-gumi, the nation's largest mob organization, shakes up its leadership and absorbs another gang.

October 16, 2005|Eric Talmadge | Associated Press Writer

KOBE, Japan — Behind a high wall and a row of trees on a quiet street corner, the headquarters of Japan's largest crime syndicate could almost pass for just another upscale mansion. Except for all the surveillance cameras. And the barbed wire. And the sharply dressed men in sunglasses and crew cuts.

Especially lately.

In its biggest shake-up in 16 years, Japan's largest crime gang named a new boss in August at its headquarters in this western port city. Soon after, police reported, the 40,000-strong Yamaguchi-gumi absorbed a large gang in Tokyo.

If it seemed to play like a routine corporate merger in the Japanese media and police communiques, it's because the Japanese mob -- the yakuza -- has its own place in the power structure. The police deployed outside the mansion weren't there to make arrests so much as to intervene if the meeting turned violent.

It isn't clear why Yoshinori Watanabe stepped down as boss and let his No. 2, Kenichi Shinoda, take over. But experts believe the moves reflect a larger restructuring of the underworld.

"The trend for gangsters to join up with the biggest gangs is getting stronger, and this is a good example," said Kanehiro Hoshino, a Teikyo University criminologist. "The new boss is almost certainly going to push hard to expand the syndicate's reach."

Although Japan prides itself on low levels of violence and street crime, its gangsters are among the world's wealthiest. They bring in billions of dollars a year from extortion, gambling, prostitution, Internet pornography, guns, drugs, and real estate and construction kickbacks.

Police say their number is growing, and the Yamaguchi-gumi is quickly absorbing them.

At the end of last year, there were 87,000 gangsters, 70.5% of them affiliated with the three largest crime syndicates, according to the National Police Agency. The Yamaguchi-gumi grew by 1,100, to 39,200, comprising 45.1% of Japan's underworld members -- and that was before absorbing the 1,000-strong Nippon Kokusui-kai.

Consolidation makes good business sense for Japanese gangs. The "big three" are organized in a pyramid style: Gangsters pay cuts to their bosses, and their bosses pay fees to overlords. Members get protection and help fending off rivals, and can use their affiliation to pressure extortion victims.

Gangsters in major affiliates can also take bigger risks because they're guaranteed a support network if they go to jail. Promised cash and promotions after they've done their time, some even carry out revenge hits and then turn themselves in.

The Yamaguchi-gumi's new boss did just that. Shinoda, 63, was convicted of killing another gangster, and served 13 years in prison beginning in the 1970s.

"He did his time quietly," said Shinji Ishihara, a former Yamaguchi-gumi gangster who knew him in prison. "Prison life is hard. But he was a very patient, very strong man. He was proud of what he had done."

Before 1992, gangsters made little effort to hide their affiliations. Headquarters were marked with gaudy signs, and members wore their gang's logo in the lapels of their suits. Police tended to look the other way because of the tacit understanding that the mob would avoid killings outside their own ranks, and would at times give authorities information. Top-level gangsters also often had close ties with business and political leaders.

But the main gangs got more brazen and violent, and after a police officer was shot in Okinawa, authorities cracked down. A registry of gang members was created, surveillance was increased and anti-extortion laws were toughened.

Though still powerful and well-connected, gangsters were forced underground. They diversified operations in stock and real estate -- gray areas where convictions are harder to obtain.

Hoping to gain momentum, the 240,000-strong national force has vowed to renew the pressure and plans to deploy 10,000 more policemen around Japan over the next three years.

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