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Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Brief History Of The Yamaguchi-Gumi Yakuza

The Yamaguchi-gumi are Japan's largest yakuza gang - currently under its sixth leadership, and are thus officially known as the sixth Yamaguchi-gumi (六代目山口組 Rokudaime Yamaguchi-gumi).

The Yamaguchi-gumi emblem/logo is above. I like how it it looks like a yama () - mountain.

There are around 20,400 active members, 18,600 associated members - numbers as of 2007 - consisting of approximately 45 percent of the 86,300 yakuza known to consist of the Japanese underworld.

There are 102 members of the Yamaguchi-guchi top tier:  one kumichō (組長) (boss), 15 shatei (舎弟) (younger brother) and 86 wakachū (若中) (child) - numbers as of 2005, but what is interesting is to know what each level is called. You can think of the kumichō as the Godfather.

Right now, police in Japan are expecting a large bit of whole-scale violence as the richest organized crime family is about to split into two groups owing to differences in the way the current organization is being run.

I'm sure you can find all the news you want on that now, seeing as it is big news in the Japanese media - the best of the best is anything written by Jake Adelstein, an American living in Japan, who has also written the definitive casebook on the yakuza thanks to his own personal runs in with them while reporting on their activities. Check out what he has written HERE.

Like most crime syndicates, this one occurred when some people became disgruntled by the way things were officially run.

For me, I once had a drink with the local Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken yakuza boss... who scared the crap out of me - mostly because he put on that fake gravely voice and bellowed a lot in Japanese - a language that is near and dear to me, but one I usually have no frickin' clue as to what is being said.

I taught his kid at Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School), a nice enough kid, but he wore his hair in that fake red-orange color in defiance of school board rules... an eff-you, because of who is dad was.

Anyhow... rather than write about the upcoming split in the Yamaguchi-gumi, I thought I would offer y'all a brief introduction to the Yamaguchi-gumi via a history lesson, because I love history.

Yamaguchi Harukichi.
Back in 1915 Kobe, Japan, Yamaguchi Harukichi (山口 春吉 - surname first) born in 1881 – January 17, 1938) was the founder of the Yamaguchi-gumi, which was basically, it was a 'union' of dockworkers in Kobe with violent tendencies - think teamsters back in the 1960s and earlier.

In 1925, his son Yamaguchi Noburu (山口 登 - surname first) born in 1902 - succeeded him as the second kumichō of the Yamaguchi-guchi.

Yamaguchi Noburu.
A handsome man with a Hitler mustache, he ruled his death on October 14, 1942... and while the yakuza gang apparently was rudderless during the rest of WWII, it remained officially active.

The third kumichō to take over was Taoka Kazuo (田岡 一雄 - surname first).

Born on March 28, 1913, Taoka was the one who took the Yamaguchi-gumi from a small-time local family with a few dozen members to become the largest yakuza crime group in Japan by the time he died on July 23, 1981.

Taoka Kazuo
An orphan, Taoka was street fighter in Kobe (yes, they had such things back then... like Fight Club, which doesn't exist) whose nickname was 'Kuma' (Bear) because of his tendency to claw at his opponents eyes to blind them to his blows.

Ommigawd.. it just hit me... he was the original Yamaguchi-gumi bear. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

In prison between 1937-1943, he assumed the role of third kumichō in 1946 and then being smarter than the average bear, he followed similar stylings of the Italian mafia (legitimate Italian business men's club, or so I hear) and urged everyone in the group to have and maintain legitimate businesses (Motorcycle Club - MC - insist on all active members having legitimate jobs... it keeps the cops off your butt).

As well, Taoka wanted all underlings to have a family - to seem as normal as possible.

As part of the growth, Taoka created more of an official structural system.

There was still the kumichō (himself) and then elections to create wakagashira (underbosses), and more powerful wakagashira-hosa (deputy underbosses) - in this way, there could be no disagreement about who held what power.

How did the Yamaguchi-gumi solidify their power? Violence, extortion, murder, gun smuggling, gambling, sex, sex industry, drugs, real estate and construction kickbacks - all standard fare for any crime organization anywhere..

Though not talked about, one could also assume investment in certain individuals to improve their lot... much as the mafia seemed to have done to boost the career of Frank Sinatra, so to did Taoka take an interest in actor Tsuruta Kōji who would have a long career in the Japanese films playing the role of a yakuza don in multiple sympathetic movies to make the yakuza seem more human and humane.

From left: Ono Mitsuru, Taoka Kazuo and Tsuruta Koji all palsy-walsy in this photo from 1952.
After first playing opposite Mifune Toshiro in the Samurai Trilogy of films (1954-56), he found great success starting in 1963 with the Jinsei Gekijo: Hishakaku - credited with being the first film of the chivalrous yakuza brand of flick, the yakuza eiga (ヤクザ映画). Other memorable movies include Bakuto (1964) and Nihon Kyokakuden Ketto Kanda Matsuri (1966).

So... back to Taoka...

The Yamaguchi-gumi became famed and feared... in 1978, Taoka was shot in the back of the neck by a gunman from the rival Matsuda-gumi (松田組), while at a limbo dance exhibition at a nightclub. Surviving, Taoka's attacker was found dead in some woods near Kobe a few weeks later. Wow... how low can you go? I guess they really wanted to win that dance contest.

Taoka died of a heart attack in 1981, with his wife Fumiko taking over the Yamaguchi-gumi leadership role until a new kumichō, Takenaka Masahisa (surename first), was chosen in 1984. Fumiko died of liver disease at the age of 66 in 1986.

The fourth kumichō was the unlucky Takenaka Masahisa (竹中 正久, surname first), who was born November 30, 1933 , ruling the Tamaguchi-gumi from 1984 until his death on January 27, 1985.
Takenaka Masahisa.
He was elected by a council of eight elders, but it did not sit well with one of the contenders to the throne, Yamamoto Hiroshi, who felt slighted and broke away to form the Ichiwa-kai gang, taking with him many powerful members of the Yamagichi-gumi and over 3,000 of their members members.

When such things happens, a battle over 'turf' occurs, and of course war broke out between the two gangs.

On January 26, 1985, Yamamoto sent a team of hitmen to Takenaka's girlfriend's home in Suita-shi, Osaka-ken. While waiting for an elevator, Takenaka, underboss Nakayama Katsumasa, and another gang member were shot dead, sparking the Yama-Ichi War in which some 20 people died over the next few years, marked by some 220 gun battles - virtually unheard of in Japan. The Yamaguchi-gumi ultimately prevailed.

With the help of a neutral Tokyo gang, the Inagawa-kai, a peace accord was created which allowed the remaining Ichiwa-kai defectors to rejoin the Yamaguchi-gumi.

During the war, acting kumichō Nakanishi Kazuo (surname first), the kumichō of the Nakanishi-gumi and wakagashira Watanabe Yoshinori the kumichō of the Yamaken-gumi briefly took the leadership role of the Yamaguichi-gumi until 1989.

Watanabe Yoshinori.
Watanabe Yoshinori was elected as the fifth kumichō of the Yamaguchi-guchi in 1989. Born on January 8, 1941 somewhere in Tochigi-ken, he retired in 2005, dying on December 1, 2012 - peacefully.

He was low-key, owing to an anti-gun law put in place in 1992, that makes me wonder what the hell was going on before that. Takumi Masaru (surname first), the kumichō of Takumi-gumi, was elected as wakagashira. He was so powerful and respected within the organization that his influence overshadowed that of kumichō Watanabe.

Shinoda Kenichi aka Tsukasa Shinobu.
In 2005, with Watanabe's retirement, Shinoda Kenichi 篠田 建市 born on January 25, 1942 - but also known as Tsukasa Shinobu (司 忍) was elected as the sixth (and current) kumichō of the Yamaguchi-gumi.

Shinoda joined the Hirota-gumi, a Nagoya-based Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate yakuza gang in 1962. When it disbanded, he founded the Kodo-kai with buddy Takayama Kiyoshi in 1984.

Those two were successful as leaders of the Yamagichi-gumi, with Shinoda establishing branches in 18 prefectures including the Kanto region - an area not considered to be Yamaguchi-gumi territory.

And that's where we are today.

An upcoming battle between the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Kanto-Hatsukakai (a federation of Tokyo-based yakuza groups including the Inagawa-kai and the Sumiyoshi-kai) which has also caused a rift within the Yamaguchi-gumi itself.

Going on right now, over one dozen yakuza groups with connections to the Yamaguchi-gumu have broken away to form a new gang - essentially because they dislike the amount of power and praise being given to the Kodo-kai branch that Shinoda himself founded in 1984. Ahh... Shinoda was playing favorites.

Andrew Joseph

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